Color of Money: If you're a middle-class family and can't afford the college sticker price, here's how to appeal for more financial aid

Michelle Singletary on

WASHINGTON -- There's a lot of attention right now on uber-wealthy families who allegedly bribed their children's way into expensive colleges that they could easily afford -- even after six-figure payoffs.

But in many other households right now, there are parents fretting about the not-nearly-enough financial-aid packages their children have received. After filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), they were told their expected contribution is far more than they can afford.

So, is there a way to appeal to colleges for more money?

During a recent online discussion, Mark Kantrowitz, a leading expert on the college-finance process, joined me to answer this question. He talked about his new book, "How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid," which was the Color of Money Book Club pick for last month. Here are his responses to questions he didn't have time to answer during the chat.

Q: My wife just lost one of her clients in her event-planning business. We are going to complete a form from the college for the appeal, but are there any strategies or advice that you can give to help us be reconsidered fairly? Our EFC is considered high by the college financial-aid office, and we did not get need-based aid, which we understand, but we also did not receive merit aid, which is surprising based on our child's academic record and rigor of courses.

Kantrowitz: The college will base its consideration of the appeal for more need-based financial aid on the difference in income from the "prior-prior" year to the current year. Some colleges will use an average of several years of income if the parents' income is volatile, such as often occurs with self-employed individuals. Others will pick a 12-month period that most accurately reflects the family's ability to pay.

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And, parents often overestimate eligibility for merit-based aid. Having many IB or AP classes, even with top scores, does not distinguish most students. There were 80,000 valedictorians and salutatorians last year.

Q: I consider our family "middle class," so we won't receive "need"-based help. Our "Expected Family Contribution," or EFC, is basically "pay full sticker price." While we saved a little in our 529 college-savings plan for our kids, it's not going to come close to covering the actual cost. How can we best position our child to appeal for financial aid?

Kantrowitz: Surprisingly, there's no official definition of middle income or middle class. Some define low income as having an adjusted gross income, or AGI, under $35,000, and middle income as having an AGI of $35,000 to $100,000. Some colleges use cutoffs in the six figures for middle income. Many researchers use $50,000 to $99,999 as middle income.

It's not a matter of positioning your child for an appeal. It's really about making the case that there are special circumstances that affect your ability to pay. Often the financial situation has very little to do with the child. You want to point out anything that differentiates you from the typical family. This could be anything from unreimbursed medical or dental expenses to maybe you're taking care of an elderly parent. It could be you have a special-needs child or that you are going through a separation or divorce.


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