There is no question, April is the most stressful month for parents of college-bound students.
April is when many families make decisions on where their 12th graders will attend school in the fall. These decisions are easy for some, but for others they must belabor, weigh and evaluate, struggle and wrestle with the financial aid packages that different schools offer, wondering if they can extract an additional few bucks from Top Choice U, or if they can actually afford to send Junior to that more expensive college. I had one mother remind me how much fun February was, when her kid was getting admitted to nearly every school on her list, but only two months later April grew painfully stressful when those same schools sent preliminary financial aid offers and she was faced with paying nearly 30K minimum per year for Missy’s education.
But April is not just stressful for parents; it’s also stressful for financial aid officers.
This is the time of year when financial aid awards are appealed, rejected, negotiated and revised, when financial aid officers hiding behind their ivy-covered brick walls frequently tell families what isn’t true – that this is their final offer, this is the best they can do, take it or leave it, “we’re not a lending agency”, only to turn around days or weeks later and do the opposite – increase their offer to students, enticing them to say yes by May 1 with a $7K bump in their University Grant.
One mother told me she threw out all paperwork from a Very Selective, Northeastern private university after the financial aid officer rudely told her, “we’re not a lending agency”, refusing to raise their financial aid offer and diffusing all hope that Mom could pay for this school. Yet only days later little Missy received an email from the school that they were increasing her grant by over $7,000!
Financial aid officers are people, with varying levels of patience, tolerance, and happiness. At this time of year it shouldn’t surprise parents when they receive a curt, rude, or helpless response from a request on the phone for more assistance. The financial aid office is dealing with thousands of phone calls, letters, faxes and emails, big dollars (millions!) are at stake, and there are processes that each school has in place to deal with the many requests they receive. Your ad hoc phone call on a Tuesday afternoon disrupts their process, wastes their time, and sometimes, when the urge for a 5 Hour Energy drink is raging, you’ll get a cranky response from the droopy person on the other end of the line. But if you play your cards right and understand how the appeals process works, you can see the rewards, in this case more money for your student.
A second mother saw her daughter’s award from a New York college increase by $4,400 per year after writing a written appeal explaining their circumstances, while another saw a bump of $9K from a Boston school after doing the same. I could go on.
If you have seen me at one of my live workshops, you may recall my repeated insistence, “College is a business. Even if they are not-for-profit, they want to make money”. Indeed, it is a business. And in every business there is a negotiation going on for goods and services at some level of the value chain. With colleges, that negotiation takes place over the price you pay for your student to attend. Colleges don’t like to “negotiate”, and you shouldn’t use that word when dealing with the financial aid office, but in many cases that’s exactly what is happening.
Parents of 11th and 10th graders should pay close attention, because the positioning doesn’t happen at the last minute, or on April 1, when schools send out letters. Parents need to prepare in advance, when their students are in 9th, 10th, or 11th grade, by understanding the rules of the game and play within those rules so that you get the best financial package for your student. I often hear from parents of 12th graders or with kids already in college, “I wish I knew you when…”, and they are right, because I probably could have saved them big bucks. That’s why it’s particularly annoying when a family comes to me when their kids are in 9th or 10th grade, and they think they can wait.
When it comes to planning for college, it’s never too early to get started. Because the sooner you begin, the less distasteful the medicine.