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You've known all along that you'd need to come up with a lot of money to send your child off to college. But only in the midst of your kid's senior year—when you open colleges' financial aid notices—does the harsh reality typically hit, says James C. Lundgren II, an independent college adviser in Encinitas, Calif. "The light bulbs are coming on right about now," he says.

For many parents, those light bulbs are alarmingly red and rotating, given trends in college costs and scholarships. The average cost of tuition, fees, room, and board at in-state public colleges, for example, has risen by more than $6,700 in the past decade. The average grant, however, has risen by only about $3,800.

One bit of hope in this scary situation: New rules are giving families more leeway to appeal to colleges for additional financial aid to make college more affordable. Now that the federal government allows you to fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as early as Oct. 1 of your high school student's senior year—three months earlier than in the past—many colleges are sending out financial aid letters earlier too. That gives you more time to appeal any aid package you have been offered and perhaps get more money before May 1, the national deadline for tuition deposits.

In fact, your high school senior may still have time to retake tests or employ other tactics to qualify for additional scholarships at late-deadline schools. To improve your odds of winning an appeal, financial aid experts and families who have gotten improved offers recommend following these five steps:

1. Find Your Magic Number

Your first move is to figure out how much college will truly cost your family—and how much money you can realistically contribute toward that expense. Any gap between those two numbers is what you'll want to appeal for. "Just asking for "more money" isn't particularly helpful," explains Eileen O'Leary, assistant vice president of student financial assistance at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. "When a family can say, "With two—or three, or 10—thousand dollars more in gift aid, we would be able to attend X College, our first choice for Johnny," the financial aid committee understands exactly what the goal is," O'Leary says.

Note: Aid shortfall equals cost of attendance minus grant aid, minus expected family contribution. Source: National Center for Education Statistics

What to Do

To determine your true net college cost, you'll have to do some math, since many colleges misleadingly characterize private loans or parental borrowing as aid, or leave out expenses to lower the apparent price. Start with the full cost of attendance: tuition, fees, room, board, books, travel, and miscellaneous expenses such as laundry and the occasional late-night pizza. Then subtract scholarships and grants—but not loans, since that's money you or your child will have to pay back. For guidance on how to translate a college's purported cost into your family's actual cost, see this annotated financial aid letter.

How much of that price tag can you cover? Start with your child's contribution: Since skin in the game encourages students to take college more seriously, you can reasonably expect your child to take out a federal student loan and work part-time, for a total freshman contribution of about $7,500. Thanks to the American Opportunity Tax Credit, married couples earning less than $180,000 a year get a tax credit of up to $2,500 for the first $4,000 in tuition they pay each year, translating into a net payment of $1,500. If your student will live on campus, you'll be able to dig money out of your household expenses; you'll buy less food, and you can get a break on car insurance by switching your child to "occasional driver" status.

2. Learn the Rules of the Game

Once you have the number you'll seek, work on justifying your appeal. There are three standard factors that colleges might consider: need, merit, and competition. Federal rules allow (but don't require) financial aid officers to raise aid for families who can demonstrate "special circumstances," such as a job loss or medical bills, that have increased their need for aid since they filed their FAFSA. Colleges with large merit-aid budgets may raise a scholarship if a student can show additional achievements, such as boosting his or her grade point average since applying. And some colleges will consider matching offers from colleges they consider to be competitors.

Source: Money

What to Do

First, check the college's financial aid and admissions history to see how your student's test scores, GPA, and aid package compare with those in previous years. Money's college site will tell you the percentage of students who have received merit aid, for example, the average size of those grants, and the percent of need the school typically meets with grants. (Most colleges don't meet full need for all students.) Then ask the college's financial aid office about the procedure for filing an appeal—send a letter? an email?—the timeline for appeals, and the grounds the college will consider.

Also ask about what appeals they don't usually approve. Public universities typically aren't generous to out-of-staters. And many colleges practice "preferential packaging," meeting a higher percentage of need for students with grades or test scores at the top of their applicant pool. If your student's academics won't help raise the school's averages, you may get little or no grant money.

Research paid off for high school senior Michaela Carnesi, 17, earlier this year when her dream school, Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., offered her $10,000 a year in scholarships along with her early admission. Looking up the school's financial aid history online, her parents noticed that the average size of a merit grant was about $12,000. So Michaela, from New York's Long Island, drafted an appeal letter that earned her an extra $2,000 a year in scholarships.

3. Submit Your Paperwork

Now you have to execute on your plan by assembling supporting documents and presenting your appeal effectively. The better the evidence you present, the higher your chances of success.

What to Do

Applying for need-based aid? Since the FAFSA for the 2017–18 school year is based on your 2015 financials, you may win more aid by providing documentation of significant subsequent events—say, an onslaught of medical bills, proof of unemployment, or a 2016 tax filing showing reduced income. In your request, ask for a "special circumstances professional judgment review," indicating you know the proper terminology.

If asking for additional merit aid, send evidence of accomplishments not included in the admissions application. Your student might even be able to get more aid by retaking standardized tests. After making "not great" scores on the SAT his junior year, Josh Cunningham of Southlake, Texas, in 2016 took the last possible ACT of his senior year—and scored a 28. That qualified him for an $11,000 annual scholarship at Oklahoma State University, enabling him to attend.

To get a college to match another school's offer, provide a copy of that competing award and explain why you think it's an apples-to-apples comparison. Focus on net costs, not a college's list price. Lisa Hoskey, director of the Office of Student Financial Services at Ithaca College, says that when families appeal with a competing offer, she often responds, "It only looks like you got more aid at X School. Do you realize their tuition is $10,000 higher?"

You also need to persuade aid officers that their school is truly your first choice, says Stonehill's O'Leary; they don't want to spend time on an appeal if the student probably won't attend. She has rejected appeals in which someone cut and pasted a request to another school—and left the other school's name in the text.

4. Follow Through

No matter how detailed your request, your job isn't over. "I always needed more information from families when considering appeals," says Robert Shorb, former director of student aid at Skidmore College.

What to Do

Call the school's financial aid office a few days after your letter or email to make sure the office received all the materials and ask if there are any questions or ways to strengthen your appeal. In-person visits can help—that is, if an aid officer has time to see you. "A personal visit can show you are serious about wanting to attend the college over many other colleges that the student applied to," says Shorb. "However, things can get pretty busy in April, and there may not be sufficient time to see everyone in person." One warning: If you can afford to fly a long distance to make an in-person appeal, don't expect your claim of poverty to be taken seriously.

5. Think About Next Year

How do you proceed if the college declines your appeal or offers you little aid for freshman year? You might still be able to reduce college's net price over the long haul.

What to Do

Ask about opportunities for upperclassmen, suggests Al Hoffman, an independent financial aid adviser in New London, Conn. Alexia Demetroulakos, for example, was able to knock about $5,000 off the cost of her last two years at Elon University in Elon, N.C. Demetroulakos, a history major, says she mostly struck out when applying for aid in high school. Once at Elon, though, she regularly scoured her department's website and asked at various school offices what else she could apply for. Besides winning a $1,500 annual history department scholarship, she snagged about $2,000 for a study-abroad trip. The extra money "is greatly appreciated," says Demetroulakos. "That's $5,000 I don't have to take out in more loans.