If you’re heading off to college this fall, but didn’t get all the financial aid dollars you were hoping for, 2008 may be your lucky year.
And you have the weakened economy to thank for it.
Amid the credit crisis and lingering uncertainty over the nation’s employment and housing markets, a record number of students this year applied to multiple schools, sending deposits in to lower-cost “safety” schools while they waited to find out what kind of loans, scholarships and grants their top-choice schools could cobble together.
As a result, the size of this year’s “summer melt,” a term used to describe students who send their deposits in to one school but select another one late in the game, is unusually large.
That creates headaches for admissions officers who need to budget for the size of their incoming freshman classes and decide how deep into their wait list they should dig.
It may also, however, create opportunity for some students to get more financial aid.
“To fill their seats and bring in those qualified students, private colleges and universities, in particular, are more willing to sweeten the pot a little this year,” says Chuck Moore, a college consultant in Louisville, Ky., who teaches a program on college affordability to high school guidance counselors.
“I’ve seen two or three cases this year where students ended up getting a better offer because they notified their school that they were admitted off a wait list from a better university,” he says. “The (lower tier) school then notified them that they had ‘found more money’ in their budget for financial aid.”
Another university this year with which Moore works closely fell far short of its enrollment goal.
“They called to tell me that if I knew any qualified students who wanted to attend they would give them an automatic $10,000 to $12,000 scholarship,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for 26 years, and though colleges will always deny that they do this, it happens all the time.”
Get your share
If you have other offers from competitive schools, be sure to let them know.
“You’re never going to get a lesser offer by asking for additional money,” says Moore. “Just ask. If you are a good academic student, and they know you have a better offer from a university they compete with, they may come up with more money.”
David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria, Va., agrees.
“Our advice every year is for students to communicate with their school if they have any challenge with regard to financial aid, and the only thing I’d add this year is that it may not hurt if you have unaddressed financial challenges to make that additional contact with colleges even as late as August to find out if there is any flexibility,” he says.
Though most colleges are aware that the large number of uncommitted students this summer may lead to the availability of additional aid in the eleventh hour, Hawkins says the colleges he speaks with regularly “are still unsure as to the magnitude of (how much more may be available).”
Ask for a judgment review
Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, an online financial aid resource, is less optimistic for students who have already received their financial aid packages.
“Does the size of this year’s summer melt mean there’s more money available in the budget for incoming students?” he asks. “I don’t think so.”
Colleges, he says, make their best and final offer to students in the initial financial aid package and aren’t likely to give students “a second bite out of the apple.”
That said, Kantrowitz notes some students appear to be waiting longer to file their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, fearing the need for financial assistance might influence the college’s decision to accept them.
“There may be some of that going on,” he says. “But you should always apply for aid if you need it because some colleges may admit you under the assumption that you don’t need aid and they won’t allow you to apply for it later — so you’re admitted but you can’t afford to go.”
Students should also always ask their school to review their aid package if there’s been a change to their financial picture, including the loss of income.
“You can ask them for a professional judgment review if there’s something you didn’t reveal to them initially or there have been some other unusual circumstances since you applied,” says Kantrowitz.
New recruits have advantage
Kalman Chany, founder of Campus Consultants and author of “Paying for College Without Going Broke,” agrees that colleges are more likely to give out excess aid dollars to new recruits than to existing students.
But “it doesn’t hurt to ask,” he says, noting it’s important to understand the application process.
“Just saying ‘I need more money’ or ‘our income is lower’ isn’t going to hack it,” he says. “But if you have high medical expenses, for example, which are not accounted for on the FAFSA form, you should request a review. You then have to be able to document that.”
If you or your parent lost a job, have your or your parent’s former employer confirm it on company letterhead.
Lastly, if you’re still on the prowl for extra cash and you’ve already selected a major, be sure to contact your academic department before school starts.
According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, some awards are designated for students in particular areas of study and the financial aid office isn’t always privy to that information.