Once you receive a college's financial-aid offer, it's a done deal, right? Not necessarily. Aid packages can be appealed and enhanced, even...

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Once you receive a college’s financial-aid offer, it’s a done deal, right? Not necessarily.

Aid packages can be appealed and enhanced, even for this fall. If you think a college hasn’t considered your complete financial situation, it’s worth a try.

Stuart Siegel, a certified college-planning specialist and executive director of College Tuition Solutions in Erie, Pa., says families are awarded fair financial assistance most of the time, but there are instances when “persistence pays off” in improving packages.

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“I had one family where the parents were divorced, and the child received no aid for the first three years while attending Northwestern University,” Siegel says.

“The applications from the parents, though, contained conflicting information, and that’s why the student got nothing and wasn’t going to be able to afford to graduate.”

After reworking the aid forms with new information, Siegel says, the student received $17,000 from Northwestern for her senior year.

For many families, gaining significant financial support is more important than ever because of steadily increasing tuition and other charges.

Private U.S. colleges charged an average $27,516 and public schools $11,354 in the 2004-05 school year for tuition, room and board — up 5.6 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively, from the previous year — according to the College Board, a testing and research organization in New York.

Due to the increasing scarcity of grants, which don’t have to be repaid, loans have become the dominant form of college funding; more than half of all students rely on them.

Alternative private-loan programs grew 43 percent from 2002 to 2004, compared with only a 6 percent increase in grant aid (in inflation-adjusted dollars).

The dependence on loans creates an ever-oppressive financial burden after college. Students are graduating with an average $20,000 in loan and credit-card debt, according to the Illinois CPA Society, a certified public accountants’ group.

Stay calm

The key to an effective appeal for greater financial assistance is knowing what not to say. Writing a blistering tirade that calls the aid package grossly unfair or says your child is being cheated will be ignored.

“Quality of life, personal issues and generally being emotional will not only get you nowhere,” says Brian Greenberg, a certified college counselor and certified public accountant in Marlton, N.J., “but it may backfire and color an otherwise sound reason for appeal.”

Siegel likens an effective appeal to preparing a good tax return. To sweeten the award, you need to document everything in your favor. Here are some guidelines that may help:

• Extraordinary expenses. Note unusual bills or change in finances not detailed in the aid application, such as medical expenses, disability, job loss, financial support of an elderly relative, other children in private schools, investment/property losses, a decline in self-employment or business income, bankruptcy or anything that has decreased your income or cash flow.

• Divorce or separation. Parents may not be fully reporting the lack of support payments from an ex-spouse or true financial conditions.

• One-time increase in income. Employees forced to cash in stock options, inheritances, children receiving life-insurance proceeds from a parent’s death and temporary bonuses should be noted to the aid office. Sometimes these items can be excluded as sources of income, which may improve your aid offer.

Do research

Greenberg says you should gauge what a college has historically awarded in total-percentage terms of grants, work-study and loans. If your offer is less than average for that school, you should appeal.

You may feel legitimately shortchanged if a school that awards 60 percent of assistance in the form of grants only gives you a package that includes 30 percent grants, Greenberg adds.

To see individual college-aid profiles, select a college, then click “colleges and financial aid” in the College Board database at http://apps.collegeboard.com/search/index.jsp.

One of the most successful aid-boosting strategies can be used when you have more than one school offering assistance.

“For freshman awards, if schools are willing to work with you, they may ask to see others’ aid offers,” Siegel says. “Often they will closely match the [competing] offer if they want your child as a student.”

Siegel says one of his clients is a student who was accepted at Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth universities. Princeton offered $19,000 a year, Dartmouth $7,500 and Yale nothing. He advised the family to show Yale the Princeton offer. (He hasn’t heard back yet.)

In your appeal and other aid proposals, document any other financial reasons why your child deserves a better package. Send your letter to the college aid office via second-day airmail and expect a reply within 10 days. If there is no response, call the office.

Your chances of increasing an aid offer are slim if a college is lukewarm about matriculating your child, Siegel says. Admitted students with high test scores, solid essays and good extracurricular activities get prime attention.

State schools are less likely than private or Ivy League colleges to grant appeal requests simply because they have less money.

Some hire counselors

You can hire a counselor such as Siegel to work on your behalf (www.niccp.com for referrals), although Siegel will only take cases in which he has a high likelihood of garnering a minimum $7,500 in aid.

Specialists like Siegel will charge a flat fee if they take you on as a client. Avoid counselors who work on a percentage basis of the aid granted or make outlandish claims such as being able to obtain tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

You can always write the appeal letter yourself if you have a reasonable case and provide documentation. Be prepared for aid offices to immediately reject your appeal, though.

“Nine out of 10 schools say no [to appeals] right away,” Siegel says, “but the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”