A friend received a fantastic financial offer from a top-notch US Christian college, but the end result would’ve still been too high. So we carefully presented the case for additional money and received over $10,000. Wanna know how?
On 3 March my mouth dropped open when I read this generous offer. It was truly remarkable the package this college had put together for this student whom we’ll call Manny (and for whom we’ll be creative with a few factual details). A top-tier, nearly $49,000 college was offering a package of merit scholarships, federal grants, and state financial aid worth about…wait for it…$28,000 per year!
Additionally, the college decided that this family that was serving sacrificially abroad deserved an additional helping hand, so they added another $4,000 per year out of the college coffers just to sweeten the deal.
There were also some loans presented in the financial aid package, but I don’t consider a loan to be “aid” so much as they are, well, “loans,” so we’ll ignore that information. If you don’t know how to read the college offer sheet, please read more about it.
The bottom line is that this fine college had put together an equally fine financial package which would only leave the family paying, let’s see…
That college at that price is a parents’ dream if they are making $120,000 per year, putting away $30,000 of it into their retirement accounts, $10,000 into each of their two kids’ 529 college savings accounts, have equity in their home, etc. That is not my situation! Is it yours? No, it wasn’t Manny’s family’s situation either.
The FAR game-plan
As we discussed the offer together and realized (a) the college really wanted Manny to attend there and (b) it was financially impossible, we developed a game-plan that I’m going to nickname FAR because you want this plan to take you a long way. With time short, we put my little FAR plan into motion very quickly. The plan included:
- Finding a comparison college,
- Annotating the family’s special circumstances and
- Relating to the financial aid office.
The first letter in FAR stands for…
Finding a comparison college
Ideally, you did this already when you filled out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It’s always good for college X (that you’ve fallen in love with), to see their competitor, college Y, is listed as one of your schools of interest on the FAFSA.
In this case, we needed to find a true college Y immediately. Because of my own college research with the help of College Assistance Plus, I’d already had my eye on a college Y that I knew to be a solid school with lower costs and in the same region of the country. Manny applied immediately, requested some estimated numbers and that became our quick comparison, or as some would call it “leverage,” college.
Because we’d not worked through College Assistance Plus, we weren’t overly sure that college X really saw college Y as comparable to them, but we hoped it might be close enough for this emergency situation. Also, because of our own ethical convictions and the generosity of college X, we never used college Y as an aggressive negotiating tool, but we did let college X know that Manny was also looking at college Y because their costs seemed to be about $3,000 cheaper per year. (Similarly, we let college Y know that Manny was hastily applying to their school because it looked about $3,000 more affordable than college X.)
As parents and students, we feel like we are competing for acceptance into colleges and, yes, Princeton and Harvard can be pretty choosy. However, the truth is that enrollments have slipped, colleges have bills to pay and dorms to fill, and many of them are competing for your kiddo and your dollars. Your family is in a better position than you think but only if the colleges know you are looking at more than one option. Just like you’d never tell a car dealer, “That’s the only car for me!” before asking what promotions they can offer, you never want to apply to only one college and effectively say, “You’re the school for our daughter or son! Now, how much will this cost us?”
Annotating the family’s special circumstances
Manny’s family had already done a good job communicating their expat situation with the college upon application. That probably explains the great $4,000 institutional gift that Manny received out of the college’s own pockets. What a gift! Still, to go FAR, we’ve got to Annotate in detail.
You see, colleges have the flexibility to play with your FAFSA numbers, to get you additional aid from the government or to give you additional aid themselves. Ask each college you apply to if they have a supplemental aid form or a special circumstances form. Nearly every US expat nonprofit or missionary family should be filling out these forms or writing a letter to annotate their special circumstances.
If you pay high taxes overseas, buy a gallon of gas at four times the US average price, have to pay for homeschool materials, have amazingly high utility bills, had a medical evacuation last year, have visa restrictions that prevent your spouse from working outside the home, and so on, the school needs to know. You are explaining to them that your need is great, that your wage is low, and that your low wage is actually lower than it appears because of the extra costs you face as an expat.
In many cases, especially with Christian colleges, I find that the staff is “on your side.” They are looking for a reason to prefer your son or daughter over an American-based family that has greater means than you do. Annotating your circumstances gives the financial aid office a reason to argue on your behalf. Speaking of the financial aid office, going FAR also requires genuinely…
Relating to the financial aid office
I don’t mean this in any sinister or under-handed way at all. I’ve learned to enjoy developing relationships with my kids’ financial aid officers, their future school counselors, and so on. Again, in the case of Christian schools at least, I’ve found these people to be very kind and personable. They seem to love to hear about our work overseas. I’ve stayed in contact with some of these people long after my children have moved on.
Just as you develop good, caring relationships with the nationals around you and with your donors back in the States, why not develop a good, caring relationship with the people who are talking to your son and daughter about their college? I know for a fact that these people occasionally sit around a table and look through your children’s essays and applications together and discuss who has the greatest needs, who they really want attending their schools, etc. Many of them favor our children because of their overseas experience and solid values. Why not also have them favor our children because they simply like them or like us?
Manny and his parents worked hard with me on this. Manny was thrilled about the idea of attending college X and so was highly motivated as were Mom and Dad. I wrote a personal email to contacts I have at both college X and Y. Manny’s Mom wrote, not just to annotate their need, but to explain how excited Manny would be if the finances could work out. I suggested that Manny write a short, hand-written note about why he was so excited about attending college X. Manny did a great job of it and we sent it along to his financial aid representative.
I have a very active imagination, but I imagine that about a half-dozen financial aid office staff and the college chaplain sat around a table to say, “Ok, we’ve accepted 5000 applicants this year. 2200 have already accepted or we expect them to accept because Dad and Mom attended here, they didn’t apply to any other school, etc. Statistically, we expect another 1000 to accept our initial offer. That leaves us with about 100 dorm spots. About 200 families have said they just can’t afford our school at this point or seem to be favoring some other college. So with the resources, we have left, which of these 200 families would we really like to win over? Which of these 200 kids deserve a little more help and would be an asset to our college?” At that point, we were hoping to have Manny’s financial aid officer pound the table and say, “This kid is amazing, but we’re going to lose him because these nonprofit workers just can’t afford this offer. Can’t we please find some more money for this Manny kid?”
I don’t know if that’s what happened over at college X or not. I do know that Manny wrote them a personal, emotional email and that his parents corresponded with honesty, grace, and kindness with his financial aid officer. All of that really did go FAR!
The Sweetened Offer
Manny and his family, with a bit of help from my voice of experience, did the hard work of Finding a comparison college, Annotating their special circumstances, and Relating to the financial aid office. Whether Manny’s financial aid officer banged the table for him or not, we’ll never know. What we do know is that college X offered a jaw-dropping generous offer on 3 March. However, after working the FAR plan, by 23 April, they had added an additional $2,600 per year to their offer. If Manny graduates in four years (and he’d better not go a day longer!), the FAR plan earned this family an extra $10,600.
An Easier Path
At the risk of sounding immodest, Manny was very fortunate to have bumped into me. I happened to know the college he chose, a somewhat similar school that costs less, and contacts at both schools. I also just happened to be able to write a bunch of emails to them and for them and to know a lot about choosing a college through having done it twice with the help of College Assistance Plus.
Starting this whole process earlier and working with College Assistance Plus all along the way is a much easier path. They do this for a living! They have a substantial one-time fee, but it is a pittance compared to the numbers we are talking about saving here.
They’ll start with your kid years before entering college and work with him or her up to and through finding a job. Regarding college choice, College Assistance Plus will sift through their enormous database to find out which college is the size (they range from 200 students to nearly 60,000 last I checked), the type (Christian, private, public, etc.), the location (which state or region), the surroundings (in the middle of a city or of a hayfield), and the price you want for your kiddo and his or her career path. As you narrow down your schools, College Assistance Plus will tell you with a strong degree of certainty, which comparable colleges to apply to, how to make yourself look more winsome on the FAFSA, which colleges are being particularly generous in certain fields of study right now, etc. They’ll even read your kiddo’s essays and give her or him some pointers!
If you sign up with them, they’ll give Vagabond Finances a modest (but welcome!) commission, and they’ll give you a staff of people working on your side. You don’t need to feel alone in this big decision.
Manny’s family was blessed with a fantastic initial offer, someone with some “insider” knowledge, and some really receptive financial aid officers. I’m convinced that the savings could have been much greater with College Assistance Plus‘s help, and it certainly would have been a lot less stressful on Manny and his parents.
This post was written for VagabondFinances by our frequent contributor, Michael A. Carlson.