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What College Aid Officers Won't Tell You

If you were shopping for a refrigerator at Sears and the salesman began raving about a Kenmore, you'd wonder if the fridge was really a fantastic appliance or the guy was just trying to please his employer. You need to be equipped with those same instincts when shopping for the best college values. Financial aid officers may want to help, but their first allegiance is to their schools. Here are five things they'll never tell you.

Secret 1: Home Equity May Count Against You

Whether your home equity will affect the financial aid you receive depends on the type of college. If your teen applies to a state school, the value of your house won’t jeopardize your financial aid chances. Plenty of private schools, however, aren’t so blasé. They’ll insist on knowing how much home equity you have and then may factor that into the amount of aid they’ll offer.

Some private colleges, such as Washington University in St. Louis, Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wa., and Princeton University look at home equity but don’t hold it against you. In contrast, schools such as Brown University include home equity in a family’s assets before calculating aid.

Caution: Some colleges refuse to divulge how they treat home equity. If your child is applying to one, the aid offering will be a crapshoot.

Works Best: Carefully read the financial aid rules before your child sends in an application, so you know whether you can expect aid based on your home equity.

Secret 2: We’re Nicer to Freshmen

The great financial aid package an incoming freshman receives might look raggedy 12 months later. Financial aid officers often reserve their best offers for the latest crop of prospective students, making packages stingier for others.

Caution: Here’s a clue to whether a college may be jilting sophomores: check its freshmen retention rate. Nationally, the freshmen retention rate is 66 percent, according to ACT, Inc., the testing service. You can find retention rates at the federal College Navigator site. If a four-year college’s retention rate is much lower than 66 percent, don’t count on a full continuation of aid.

Works Best: Chris Hooker-Haring, dean of admission and financial aid at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., suggests parents of prospective freshmen ask the admission or financial aid officer, “If my family’s financial circumstances remain the same and my child is a student in good standing, can I count on the integrity of the aid package for four years?”

Secret 3: We Hope You’ll Fall for Early Gifts

Teenagers are understandably flattered when they get an early financial aid offer. It’s rarely a good idea to swallow the bait, though. The awards prospective freshmen receive in November, December, or January are often low-ball offers, according to Jerry Israel, former president of the University of Indianapolis and author of The 75 Biggest Myths about College Admissions. “What schools are banking on is that you want the process to be over,” Israel says, “so when you get that first award you grab it.”

Caution: Parents of freshmen shouldn't blithely accept early financial-aid offers in fall or winter.

Works Best: Wait until your student is accepted at more than one school and compare the aid each offers, and then make the decisions about enrollment and aid.

Secret 4: College Crushes Are What We Love

Admission officers are delighted when prospective students fall in love with their colleges, but puppy love can be costly. Infatuation can prevent a student and his parents from weighing alternate aid packages from schools that might be more generous.

Barmak Nassirian, an associate executive director at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, urges teenagers to ask themselves this question before making final decisions, "Do I want to go to a place with ivy on the walls and live with $200,000 in debt or go someplace else with no debt?"

Caution: Ivy-itis can be particularly hard to cure. Remember: there’s more to choosing a college than status.

Works Best: Keep options open to increase your leverage possibilities when the final aid offers come in.

Secret 5: You Can Negotiate

The biggest dirty little secret in financial aid: negotiating is widespread. Ask for a better package if you’ve had significant changes in your family’s finances since filling out the application — such as a job loss, debilitating medical bills, or divorce.

Schools can also reevaluate packages based on new information you can provide that is “pretty sketchy,” Israel said. Just about anything could fit into that category, including mentioning that grandma is an alumna. (Hint, hint: she just might give more to the school if her favorite grandchild can afford to go.)

Caution: Don’t play one school off against another. Aid officers don’t like to feel that they’re in competition.

Works Best: If a college believes the student will only attend in the fall with a somewhat better package, the aid office might toss in a few more dollars.

Read more about the college aid game:

href="">Financial Aid: Do You Qualify?

href="">How Rich Kids Get College Aid

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