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6 tips for appealing a financial aid award

This is the time of year in the college admission season when colleges and universities break the hearts of millions of applicants.

Teenagers who are thrilled when they're accepted by their dream colleges are too often disappointed with the aid packages that they receive.

This week, for instance, a college consultant shared with me the aid package of a bright girl who received a financial aid offer from Villanova University that included a $3,000 work-study job, but the rest of the package was stuffed with loans. The financial aid formula suggested the family could afford to pay roughly $30,000, but the school's cost is more than $60,000.

When a school dispenses such a miserly award, it's unlikely that the gap between what a student needs and what a school wants to give will close. Many times, however, it's worth appealing a financial aid package or a merit award.

Here are six thing you need to know about appealing an award:

1. Identify your "Expected Family Contribution." Before you can determine if an award is stingy, you have to know what your Expected Family Contribution is. Your EFC is a dollar figure that represents what a financial aid formula says you should be able to afford for one year of college. So, if your EFC is $25,000 and the school's cost is $60,000, ideally you would receive $35,000 in assistance.

Shamefully, most colleges and universities do not include the EFC figure in their award letters. If they did, it would be easy for families to determine if the award is a good one. So, before you appeal an award, you need to ask the school what EFC it generated for your child.

2. Skip the tears. Financial aid officers are going to feel incredibly uncomfortable if you start crying or get so animated that you begin shouting when discussing an award. And please don't mention how outrageously expensive the school is because that won't get you anywhere. You need to engage in a dispassionate discussion when you request that the school revisit the aid award.

3. Be specific in what you want. Another mistake is bragging about your child when requesting more money. Financial aid officers are immune to boasts because they've heard them all before. Schools like to think that all their accepted applicants are special.

Let a school know how much more money you realistically need. Be as specific as possible, and provide documentation. You might want to provide a school with a cash-flow analysis. Also discuss extenuating circumstances such as supporting an ailing grandparent, a recent disability or high medical bills.

4. Inquire about what impact home equity has on an award. The vast majority of schools do not take home equity into consideration. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which most colleges use exclusively, doesn't even ask if parents own a primary home. However, about 260 schools that use a second financial aid form called the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE do ask about a primary residence.

What these PROFILE schools, nearly all private, do with home equity will vary. Some colleges will use the entire home equity amount when calculating an award, others will use a partial amount and still other won't consider it at all. Some schools will entertain a parental appeal on how it treated home equity, so it's worth asking the institution to minimize or disregard your home equity.

5. Try leverage. Let's suppose that your child received better financial aid or merit awards from other schools, but not from her No. 1. You can approach the top school and explain that your child would really like to go to there, but money is an issue and other institutions have made superior awards. Many schools will ask to see the competing offers and in some cases will raise their award.

6. Understand when an appeal won't work. If your child doesn't qualify for need-based aid and you're seeking a merit scholarship, you need to understand if the school even awards merit scholarships. The vast majority of schools do give merit awards, but a small group of institutions, including the Ivies, Georgetown, Amherst and Williams, don't.