For most people, college is not affordable, even with an aid package. If the aid package at your dream school is insufficient, you might be thinking of trying to negotiate a better one. While aid adjustments are generally infrequent, the worst that can happen if you ask is that they say no; the school won’t rescind the original offer. Colleges can adjust aid packages through a process called Professional Judgement (PJ). Here are some things that might help should you go that route:

  •  In the PJ process, schools are looking for special circumstances that might not be captured on the FAFSA. Those include a recent job loss, high medical bills, or one-time events that might have caused the family’s finances to look better in the base year than is typical. Special circumstances– like all aid appeals– are about ability to pay, not willingness.
  • Remember that to the extent that the award is federal money, the school is only the allocator of resources and is audited by the Department of Education on how those resources are allocated. That means that although they may have some leeway to adjust inputs to the formula to reflect changes in your family’s circumstances, they cannot throw the formula out.
  • Know what kind of award you’re negotiating– need-based or merit-based. This is generally to be found in the award letter, though you may need to consult the school’s website to confirm whether a scholarship is for need or for merit.
  • Document your situation. Whether it’s a lost job, divorce or other change in your financial status, have the paperwork that verifies why your need is greater than it was when you filed the FAFSA.
  • With merit awards, the school has more flexibility to negotiate. If you have a better offer from a competing school, let your first choice school know that you’d choose them if they matched the offer. But only if (a) you can document the offer and (b) it truly is a competing school– Stanford doesn’t care what Oregon State offered you.
  • Know the school’s merit scholarships. If you are just below the GPA for a higher award level but your GPA was brought down by a couple of classes early in your high school years, the school might have some leeway.
  • Be prepared to wait until the last minute to accept enrollment, or to ask for an extension. That’s because as students matriculate at one school, they decline other offers, which can result in additional aid dollars freeing up. But you need to have started the negotiation process with the school already.

Most of all, be polite in the process. People generally work in college admissions and financial aid because they want to help students attend college. Consider that they’re on your side in this process– especially since they like you enough to have admitted you to the school. Don’t lose them as your ally.