How to push a college to pare debt from an aid offer

When it comes to vetting a college financial aid offer, don’t remain silent. While colleges turn their noses up at the idea of “negotiating” for more nonloan aid, it can be done. 

The general idea is to reduce or eliminate loans from a college’s aid offer. You should never consider loans to be financial aid because they’re a burden for decades if you can’t pay them off easily. 

Of course, learning about how financial aid works needs should begin in grade school. The earlier you learn about how loans and credit work, the better. Planning ahead will alleviate credit woes later. 

Kevin Fudge, director of consumer advocacy for American Student Assistance (ASA), a college financing organization, said it’s a good idea to focus on how to cut debt financing from your college offers now because carrying loans can affect your health and well being.

An ASA survey found that 56 percent of those carrying loans worry about repaying them. More than half have placed loan repayment above saving for retirement, and some 40 percent say having student debt has “impacted their health.”

Paring debt involves fully understanding -- and improving -- college aid offers. You need to break them down. How much is a school offering in grants, scholarships and tuition discounts? If nonloan aid is on the table, does it apply to all four years, which is most desirable?

Let’s say your offer is mostly loaded with loans. How do you get a better offer? Approach the college financial aid office.

“Most schools do not engage in negotiations for additional aid,” Fudge noted. “However, if your financial situation has changed since you filed the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), such as a job loss, illness, etc., or if the FAFSA information doesn’t accurately reflect your actual financial situation, make sure you update the college as a change in circumstances could result in more aid.”

Note: A convenient FAFSA feature called the “data retrieval tool,” which downloaded tax returns directly from the IRS, has been suspended until the fall due to unspecified security issues. 

Unfortunately, that means you’ll have to manually input your tax information. It is time consuming, but if you have all of your tax forms in front of you when you do it, it’ll go a little quicker.

When you communicate with a college about an aid offer, don’t email or call to demand more aid. Your request for more financial assistance should be referred to as an “appeal” and be done in writing, Fudge advised. And you need to be specific about how much more you’d like to see in the package.

“When asking for more aid, it’s better to approach the college with a specific dollar amount in mind that would make it possible to attend their institution, rather than just asking for a more favorable financial aid package in general,” Fudge added. “And of course, be polite!” 

Even when colleges won’t budge on improving their aid offer, you still have some options. Outside scholarships are often available. You can use several online search engines to find grants that are available locally, statewide and throughout the country. Thousands of private organizations also offer them. More than $10 billion is available.

However you approach the college financing process, start as early as you can. Discuss with your children the importance of saving and set up 529 college savings accounts when they’re young. Explain how they can have “skin in the game” through their own work and savings efforts.

“Of course, the ideal situation for parents to avoid borrowing or co-signing is to have early (as early as middle school), frequent and honest conversations with the student about college costs and how much they’re able or willing to afford out of pocket for college,“ Fudge said. “That way, they won’t be forced into any means necessary to fill a financial aid gap with private loans for that `dream’ school.” 

According to a recent study by the National Endowment for Financial Education, “74 percent of Americans believe financial instruction in K-12 schools gets the best results in building financial well-being -- particularly in high schools.” This means educating your family about the cost of college -- and how to pay for it -- early through saving, smart college selection and avoiding debt. 

If you have the time, you can also get grandparents and other family members involved in college saving. The key is to educate your entire family on financing and save often. 

What if you’re really down to the wire on a college decision? Appeal for the best-possible package and don’t rule out lower-cost alternatives such as commuter, community or online colleges. While the value of a college degree should prove itself down the road, any debt that becomes a burden can provide an unwanted lesson in credit management. 

  • John Wasik

    John Wasik is the author of The Debt-Free Degree and 15 other books. He writes and speaks regularly on personal finance issues throughout North America.