When it comes to deciding on where your son or daughter will go, the final decision will undoubtedly come down to dollars and cents. When most high-school students...

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When it comes to deciding on where your son or daughter will go, the final decision will undoubtedly come down to dollars and cents.

When most high-school students start looking at colleges, they think about what the college offers in terms of academics and extracurriculars. But when the financial-aid packages from schools come in the mail this spring, the final decision will likely be made with dollars and cents in mind.

“A good financial-aid package is as important as the major, course of study and geographic location,” says Bob Friedman, director of student finance at Yeshiva University in New York. “It comes at the end of the search, and it’s absolutely a top concern.”

Though financial-aid officers have some latitude in how much they can offer students, don’t expect that securing a better aid package will be as easy as snaring a deal on a vacation or flat-screen TV, says Marty Carney, DeLand, Fla.-based Stetson University’s director of financial aid.

“Don’t come in with the expectation that financial-aid offices are in the business of negotiating like used-car salesmen,” he says. “In many cases, schools don’t negotiate financial-aid awards.”

That said, it never hurts to ask. To get the best possible aid package from your dream school, follow these tips.

Make colleges compete

If you’re a fantastic student and have plenty of offers, you may have a better shot of getting an improved financial-aid package at your top school, Carney says.

“Some schools have a policy to match other school’s financial-aid award offers.”

In a letter, explain why you consider this school to be your first choice, and that you’d come “if the school could make it financially feasible for you,” Carney says. Include the competing institution’s financial-aid offer.

Ask for a reassessment

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the document that determines a student’s eligibility for federal financial aid, and in many cases, the additional awards offered by schools themselves. Financial aid for students is calculated from “base year” data. For example, for the 2009-2010 academic year, the base year is the 2008 calendar year.

Financial aid is calculated with the assumption that the income and assets will remain stable, but in this economy, that’s often not the case. If your family’s circumstances have changed, it’s wise to ask for a reassessment, Friedman says.

“If somebody lost a job, or if your assets are worth 75 percent what they were worth before, (financial-aid officers) need to know that,” he says. “If you can document it, these are things that a school can take into consideration.”

Other changes that may have an effect include the death of a parent, divorce and high medical expenses.

Explain money issues

FAFSA puts students and parents under the financial-aid microscope to determine how much they can pay for college. Still, the endless forms don’t always represent the true picture of a family’s finances, says Marc Hill, a financial planner and founder of ReduceMyCollegeCosts.com.

“Maybe the parents have a grandparent that they’re supporting in some fashion, such as a nursing home,” he says. “That’s not captured on the FAFSA. But if you can document that to the financial-aid officer, (she) may be able to change the numbers to better reflect your ability to pay.”

Because financial-aid officers have some latitude to account for special circumstances, you may net additional aid based on your situation.

Ask about new scholarships, grants

Depending on your background and academic interests, you may find that you qualify for new scholarships, says Kim Stezala, author of “Scholarships 101: The Real-World Guide to Getting Cash for College” and founder of ScholarshipStreet.com.

“The two best times to look for scholarships are as an entering freshman and after you declare your major,” she says. “I’d ask, ‘Are there any new scholarships this year or in coming years?’ “

If you fill a specific niche for which the school has received aid — female engineering majors, for example — you may qualify for additional assistance.

Be polite and

don’t “negotiate”

Parents and students who see financial-aid officers as adversaries instead of partners are often missing the point — and could end up missing out on aid, says Craig Powell, president and CEO of ConnectEDU.net.

“Financial-aid officers got into this business because they’re interested in helping young people realize their educational dreams, but they’re making decisions with limited information,” he says. “An adversarial approach won’t motivate people to help you. Helping financial-aid officers get an honest picture of the situation you’re in is much more effective.”

Financial-aid officers bristle at the idea of “negotiating.” Their job is to help meet the financial needs of students — not help them get a bargain.

With tighter budgets, increased financial need and rules set by Congress for awarding financial aid, financial-aid offices are feeling the pinch. Showcase your real financial need, not your haggling skills, if you want to get extra financial assistance.

Keep your eye

on stimulus package

The stimulus package recently signed into law includes some significant perks for college students, Powell says.

Pell Grants will be bumped from a maximum of $4,731 to $5,350, starting July 1, and to $5,550 for the 2010-2011 academic year. The package also boosts the tuition tax credit from a maximum of $1,800 to $2,500. It’s also partially refundable, meaning that those who don’t earn enough to pay taxes can still receive help.

Get the best kind of aid

As you look at your financial-aid package, be sure you understand the difference between the types of aid. It is a simple but occasionally overlooked point that grants and scholarships don’t have to be paid back, while loans do, Hill says.

“Anybody can go out and get debt — that’s not difficult to do,” he says. “Always look to get the good kind of aid — the kind that doesn’t need to be paid back.”

Don’t be afraid to ask

Though tuition is rising and financial-aid budgets often haven’t kept up, that doesn’t mean your case isn’t worth a phone call or a letter, Stezala says.

“You have nothing to lose but 10 minutes for a phone call or an hour for a letter,” she says.

“Even if you don’t win the scholarship money, you’ll gain self-advocacy skills that will take you a long way on campus. You’ll have vested interest in your education.”

And if you’re lucky, that phone call could bring you thousands of dollars more for your education.

On-campus jobs

are an option

Even if you don’t qualify for a work-study package, inquire about on-campus jobs. Schools often offer a range of opportunities for students, whether it’s scraping dishes at the dining hall or organizing lab equipment. Many savvy students are able to get work in a department related to their field of study, which may help them in their schoolwork and future career.

Get forms in on time

In the world of financial aid, time really is money. If you meet deadlines, you’re far more likely to get aid.

With schools’ limited resources and even greater demand on that funding, it’s even more important for students to get their FAFSA forms in as early as possible.

The federal deadline for FAFSA forms is June 30, but many schools require the paperwork before that time. As an incoming freshman, find the earliest deadline and use that date for all of them.

“If students don’t meet priority deadlines, they may not receive aid even if they’re eligible, because the funding was already allocated,” Carney says.

“That’s the best advice I can give this year, because most schools will not have the resources to offset the financial need for the number of students who are eligible.”