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To reveal or not reveal other awards? That is the question.

During this time of year—and more and more, during this economic climate—my accepted students revisit, meet with, and ultimately follow-up with financial aid appeal letters to their top-choice colleges and universities, asking for more financial assistance. And why not? It never hurts to ask—especially if you are a top, sought-after candidate at that college. Right?

Maybe. All too often, the request from the college-of-your-choice is the same:  “Please attach the offers you have received from the other schools to which you were accepted.”

So what should you do? Is it ethical for your first-choice school to see what other institutions have offered? Is it anyone’s business? Should you ignore the request?

Let’s work through these questions for some peace of mind.

Recently, a student of mine who was accepted to her first-choice private university, and offered $10K per year. Nothing to sneeze at, but not enough. What she needs is $15K to make it possible for her to attend without taking a job. After her second visit to the campus, the financial aid office asked her to reveal the other colleges’ offers. That’s when my student asked me, “What should I do?” After all, no one had offered her $15K. Her second and third choices offered her $11K and $13K respectively. She was worried she had boxed herself in.

Are you in a similar situation? Have you already met with the financial aid office? If so, here are a few questions you might be asking yourself:

If my first-choice college—the one I want the $15K from—sees the lower offer from another school, are they likely to meet it or beat it? What is the benefit of showing them a better offer? Isn’t it like showing your poker hand?
 
Should I reveal the lower offer, but explain that although my first-choice college is A, I will have to go with College B—a great school, but not the one I have my heart set on?

Since it’s my number one choice, should I just take the 10K offer and figure out a way to make up the difference? Work at Starbucks or the bookstore?

Obviously, you get that all of the questions depend on how bad you want to be at your number-one choice, here are some responses from the wisest colleagues in the admissions biz.

First off, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples—make sure the tuition is frozen for the next four years—meaning the colleges you received financial awards from are similar in rank and style…

1. Go ahead and show your number-one that better offer from the other schools. All colleges base their calculations on the same federal methodology, but alter their offers based on their particular financial policies. So, seeing a higher offer just might get you the extra $ you need. If the margin is small, my colleagues assure me, your top-choice will adjust their original offer to match the other schools.  But make sure you’re only sharing the letters of “comparable” schools…for example, a highly selective college won’t care that you got a full ride from a local “suitcase school.”

2.  When you’re sending in that “please, sir, I want some more” request, make sure you do it with grace and respect. Express your regret at even having to make the choice between your number-one and the other schools.

3. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. If your number 1 is really your number 1—has the programs, the people and the professors you want—then rise to the occasion and don’t let a few thousand dollars come between you and dream school. Who cares if you spend a few hours a week in college asking “would you like fries with that” if you’re set up for the career you’ve wanted?

Finally, I’d go with what Nirav Mehta, the associate director of admissions at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, said when I asked him the above three questions:

“I believe the other offers should be revealed, as requested by the Financial Aid Office. But it's equally important to highlight the real financial need without an adversarial approach. Financial aid officers are interested in helping young people realize their educational dreams, but they're making decisions with limited information. Helping financial aid officers get an honest picture of the situation will be the most effective approach. I have seen modifications in the financial aid package with this kind of approach that focuses on the need, especially if [you’re] academically stellar.”

Thanks, Nirav!
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Bottom line: It never hurts to ask, and honesty is the best policy.

Best,
Auntie Evan