Leveling with colleges about your financial problems

Telling strangers you need help isn’t easy. Telling your son’s college you need more financial aid than the feds say you need can be unnerving. But in this recession, you need to ask.

“We have that conversation every year with our son’s college,” Sandy Christensen told us recently, “and every year they come through for us.”

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Her family income’s taken a hit the past few years and they’ve had to use up much of their savings. But Christensen says her son’s school, Washington University in St. Louis, has worked with them to boost the annual aid package so he can afford to stay.

We wrote last year about how some colleges were providing more aid to students after learning of a parent who recently lost a job or suffered some hardship that hit after the aid package was put together. Those needs have only worsened with the recession.

So what do you do? Christensen, a source in MPR’s Public Insight Network from Burnsville, offered a road map. “When we first began the college search, we were already strapped for money,” she says.

Two pieces of good advice that we were given: 1.) If you don’t have money, apply to the large, expensive, private schools, as they are the ones with money to give; 2.) Don’t spend money traveling to visit schools unless your child has been accepted at them, otherwise you are wasting money.

Alex applied to Iowa State, University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Washington University in St. Louis.

We had toured Northwestern his junior year and our tour guide had told us that if you can get accepted they can find a way to get you paid for. However, when we visited a second time and met with the financial aid office, we didn’t get the same story. The person who met with us was filling in from another office and really wasn’t interested in refining our package.

At Vanderbilt, we told the financial aid person that we didn’t have the dollars to make it work. She responded that they really didn’t need our son. Nice.

At Wash U, we happened to end up with the director of financial services, who chatted with us and learned more about us, then looked up Alex’s application and info on his computer, then said that he would be happy to put together a better package for us that we could afford, including a Wash-U sponsored loan package for us. We waited anxiously for a week or two until the revised offer arrived, and it was very generous.

Alex really wanted to go to Northwestern, so times were tough briefly and he struggled with financial reality and then finally came to terms with going to Wash U instead. He was VERY happy with this decision well before finishing his freshman year, thank goodness, and is still having an amazing college experience.

What made the difference? Christensen believes it was who they met with in the financial aid office at each school.

“It also matters that you are direct, honest, and sincere,” she added. “I remember telling the director truthfully that we had put all of our time and resources into raising a good kid rather than into making lots of money.”

Most of are conditioned to believe that when we fill out the federal student aid form and it spits out a calculation of expected family contribution, that’s it.

Bill Witbrodt, Washington University’s director of student financial services (and the person who met with Sandy Christensen’s family about financial aid), says it needs to be the start of the process.

“It’s kind of intimidating to ask for (more) financial aid,” says Witbrodt, who notes Washington added $3 million, roughly five percent, to the student aid budget. Undergrad tuition and fees run nearly $40,000 and he says about 60 percent receive aid.

For many families, he says, it’s the first time they’ve ever had to ask for help. Some withdraw without asking what’s possible. “We just don’t want a student disappearing off the radar screen.”

It helps, of course, to have a kid that a college wants. “Obviously, if you are begging for money, you need to be ‘selling’ them a good product,” says Christensen, noting Alex was active in youth government and sports, was an Eagle Scout and had solid grades.

He’s a junior now, “and our circumstances have gotten worse,” she adds. “My husband lost his job a year and a half or so ago, then he took a lower-paying one. Each year when the new financial package arrives, we just email them with any circumstances that are not reflected in our taxes/FAFSA. They usually have improved the offer accordingly.”

BONUS INFO:

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators has a terrific page laying out the extra financial aid help from the federal stimulus bill.

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education also has a Web site devoted to paying for college.

The higher ed office recently updated its page on what to do it you’re a college student and your family’s income has been reduced.

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