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Go the grocery store, and the price is the price. Apples are $2 a pound this week, and you’ll get nowhere arguing about it. Go to a car dealership, on the other hand, and the sticker price is just the beginning of a conversation.

College financial aid is more like a car dealership than a grocery store. It’s possible to negotiate a better deal. In fact, the practice is becoming a common enough part of the college admissions process that there are now companies that focus on helping families navigate the negotiation. A Sallie Mae survey last fall found that more than a quarter of families asked for more financial aid.

Asking never hurts, but it can certainly help more if you know what you’re doing. Here’s how to prepare for a successful negotiation.

Understand how financial aid works

Before you ask for more money, it’s important to understand how college aid works. Colleges and universities give two kinds of financial aid. First is need-based aid, which is based on the results of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Scholarship Service profile (CSS). Most U.S. schools use the FAFSA to help determine what a family can afford to pay for college. Some other schools, typically at the more expensive end of the educational market, also use the CSS profile for the same purpose.

After determining need-based aid, most colleges also hand out what’s called merit aid. Maybe the applicant shows particular academic promise, or is uniquely gifted in music or sports. Or perhaps the student is simply eligible for common college tuition discounts. Regardless, think of merit aid as an extra incentive that colleges can give to students they’d particularly like to enroll.

No matter which kind of aid you’d like to increase, “appeal money is first come, first serve,” says David Haas, a financial planner in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. For that reason, if you’re going to appeal aid for the school year that begins in autumn 2021, do it now.

How to get more need-based aid

Need-based aid is just that: Colleges award it when you show that your financial circumstances would otherwise make it difficult to pay a student’s educational expenses. To get more, you’ll have to show that your need has increased.

“If something wasn’t revealed on your financial aid forms and you can show that you have a special circumstance and need more money, then by all means, write a letter to explain your special circumstances,” says James Shagawat, a financial planner in Paramus, New Jersey. Job loss, a death in the family or a medical diagnosis that has changed a family’s financial situation are all examples of instances where an appeal might help.

Requests for additional need-based aid should detail your changed circumstance and the effect that change has had on your family’s finances. If you can, include proof: a letter from your doctor, a layoff notice or a death certificate, for instance. Because need-based aid depends on parental finances, parents should write the letter asking for more need-based aid, unless the student is an established adult or emancipated minor. Send it to the financial aid office.

How to increase merit aid

To appeal for additional merit aid, start by having multiple financial aid offers from similar schools. In this instance, “similar” means requiring analogous grades and test scores, having similar acceptance rates, or standing within twenty spots on major college rankings lists, Haas says. Set aside the highest financial aid offer, then ask the other schools if they’re able to match it.

That’s what Catherine Valega is doing. The parent of a high school senior, Valega lives in Winchester, Massachusetts, where her daughter is still deciding where she’ll go to school. Financial aid is a big part of that decision, Valega says.

“My daughter got into four or five schools that she’s excited about, and some of the aid packages are juicier than others,” Valega says. She’s asking all of them if they’re able to match or beat the top offer.

“She’s got great grades, lots of activities, and a bilingual and multicultural family,” Valega says of her daughter. “If your child is an attractive candidate for the schools, ask. You don’t get what you don’t ask for.”

To back up her request, Valega’s daughter is sending copies of the aid offer letters from other schools. “You can’t make up the numbers,” she says.

Unlike questions about need-based aid, appeals for more merit aid should come from the student. Send them to the admissions office.

It’s also possible to ask for more merit aid for a student who has just one financial aid offer, though it isn’t as likely to succeed.

“You need to give them an excuse to give you more money,” Haas says. Maybe an academically gifted student has won academic awards that the college doesn’t yet know about, or a talented performer has won a lead role in a play. Tell the college about it.

Tips to improve the chances of success with either type financial aid

Some tips are always applicable, no matter what kind of aid you’d like to increase.

  • Use the correct terms. Yes, you’re negotiating — but “appeal” is the word to use in your conversations with colleges.
  • Letters are good. In-person appointments are better, if you can get one. The student and parents should all attend.
  • Be honest, enthusiastic and very polite. Your student would love to attend the school in question. You’re just asking the college to make that more possible. Don’t make demands or say that the college would be lucky to have your student attend.
  • Ask for a specific amount. “The more specific you can be, the better,” says Matthew Smartt, a financial planner in Belmont, Michigan. “There’s a fine line between being specific and being greedy, and where that line is depends on the situation. Use other offers as reference.” For instance, if you have aid offers of $25,000, $29,000, and $33,000, you might get all three offers up to $33,000 — but you probably won’t parlay any of them into an offer of $60,000 in aid.
  • Follow up. If you don’t get an answer within about a week, check in with the college. But if the answer is no, don’t make a pest of yourself. “The chance of them coming through with something after they’ve said no is close to zero,” Haas says. “The only way I can even imagine it is if there is some significant new information.”

The worst that can happen if you ask for more aid is that a college may refuse. “They’re not going to rescind the offer of admission or give you less aid than you started with,” Smartt says.

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