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For many families, it pays to appeal college aid award

NEW YORK — The era of the financial aid appeal has arrived in full, and April is the month when much of the action happens. For decades, in-the-know families have gone back to college financial aid officers to ask for a bit more grant money after the first offer arrived. But word has spread.

Do not call it bargaining. Or negotiation. That makes financial aid officers angry. But that’s not to say that you shouldn’t ask. At many private colleges and universities, half or more of families who appeal get more money. And this year, for the first time, the average household income of financial aid applicants will top $100,000 at the 163 private colleges and universities that the consulting firm Noel-Levitz tracks.

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But keep this in mind: For all of the real, important work of forging minds that goes on behind the ivy-covered walls, this is also an industry. The people who work in it are obsessed with carefully managing enrollment and making sure that they don’t give away too much money. To accomplish these goals, Carnegie Mellon uses proprietary statistical modeling, while consultants like Noel-Levitz sell revenue management systems and blog about merit scholarships that can serve as decision triggers. The real sin in the financial aid world is something called overawarding, lest the discount rate outpace the growth of net tuition revenue per student.

All that business jargon is not to suggest that they aren’t discounting. It happens, a lot. Knowing a bit more about how the process works may help you get a lower price if you don’t like the award letter.

I sent notes to a few dozen of the most expensive schools in the country seeking answers about appeals. Some declined to help or were nearly monosyllabic. There was a heartfelt and intensely useful response from Maureen McRae Goldberg, director of financial aid at Occidental College.

The responses led me to believe that there were two main kinds of appeals, and only the first had a reasonably high likelihood of success.

Your best shot with an appeal will come from a change in your family’s financial circumstances since you applied for aid. Possibilities include job loss or death of a parent.

When you make the appeal, the director of financial aid at Trinity College suggests that it be written, quantified, and documented. At Sarah Lawrence, the dean of enrollment adds that it’s easier to respond to changes that have happened than those you anticipate.

There are some circumstances not to cite: McRae Goldberg once heard from a family with $30,000 in medical expenses after a cancer diagnosis. Documentation arrived, and it was for the family cat.

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