How families can get the best possible college financial aid

WASHINGTON — Tuesday is College Signing Day, when many high school students make their decision about where they’ll go to class in the fall.

It’s not an easy decision, and financial aid is a significant variable in how that decision is made. But navigating the world of aid packages and loans can be confusing. With so much money on the line, how can a family know that an aid package is providing the most assistance possible?

The answer: Trust that the schools are putting together these offers in good faith, said Arun Ponnusamy of the college counseling firm Collegewise.

“That doesn’t mean that there might not be a few additional dollars available, but they’re using some equations, algorithms to kind of figure out what makes the most sense for you,” he told WTOP’s Shawn Anderson and Hillary Howard.

If a family, however, thinks a school can offer more, Ponnusamy recommends that they reach out directly to the school’s financial aid department. Many, he said, are willing to have a conversation, especially if families are providing additional information.

“It won’t necessarily be the most selective of colleges out there,” he said, “but if they really want you, they’re going to kind of find that extra thousand or 5,000 bucks out there that might make the difference.”

Ponnusamy recommends resisting the urge to treat the back and forth like negotiating a car deal. If another school is offering more aid than the school of choice is, remember that both probably won’t take kindly to being compared with each other.

Similarly, he said, avoid citing a student’s merit in asking for a bigger aid package. It’s not always apples to apples, he said. The school might not consider the other a peer institution.

“And it becomes very easy for them to say, ‘Well, they really want you. We don’t want you quite as much,'” Ponnusamy said.

That said, if a school is falling short of its class size, it might still be willing to talk, he added.

Ponnusamy also has a message for anyone who feels disappointed by the day’s events: Things will work out.

“Every kid can be very happy at dozens of different colleges,” he said. “This is really like
hitting the broad side of a barn. … If you go in there, open-minded, ready to take advantage of the opportunities, it’s going to be four pretty wonderful years for most kids.”

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