Last Updated Apr 15, 2011 5:32 PM EDT
That's the question that a dad posed to me this week. The father was disappointed at the financial aid package that his son, who hopes to major in mechanical engineering, received this spring from a university.
When the dad shared the details it was obvious to me that this was an especially miserly package. The family's Expected Family Contribution or EFC was $18,000. According to the federal financial aid formula, the EFC is the amount of money that a family should be able to afford to pay for one year of college.
The university costs more than $40,000, but the student only received a $7,500 grant from the school along with some loans. Attending this university without more help would be akin to financial suicide.
Luckily, the teenager has other college options, but he remains interested in the school. Here are some things he can do to try to boost his financial aid:
1. Find out what the appeal process is.You should first check on a college's website to see if it contains procedures for requesting additional financial assistance. Some schools, for instance, will require that parents complete an online appeal form.
2. Start a conversation.Call the school and explain that you have questions about your financial aid award. Make an appointment to talk by phone with the officer.
Don't steer your talk with an aid officer into a negotiation. That's a turn off. You want the request to be conversational. "If you approach it as a conversation, it's much easier for the aid person to get a better sense of your family and what your real needs are," says Myra Baas Smith, who is the College Board's executive director of financial aid services.
Consider following up the talk with an email highlighting the financial issues that you mentioned in your conversation, but don't make it long. The equivalent of one page is plenty.
3. Share new information.If you've lost a job, got your hours cut, experienced high medical bills or are in worse financial shape than when you filed your financial aid application, be sure to mention this. To boost your case, offer to provide proof of your financial set back.
4. Share other offers.If your child received better aid awards from other schools, share that information with the institution that your child would like to attend. Be prepared to show copies of the other award letters. Some schools are aggressive about matching other offers.
5. Be realistic.Unfortunately, hardly any schools, except for the richest and most elite, can meet 100% of a student's financial need. Private schools, in particular, often reserve their best packages to applicants whom they covet the most. As a general rule, a student will enjoy a greater chance of receiving a satisfactory aid package if he or she is in the top 25% to 33% of the applicant pool.
More on CBS MoneyWatch:63 College With the Best Financial Aid