My daughter learned this little ditty in preschool: "You get what you get, and you don't get upset." Parents who are convinced they can haggle their way to a better financial aid package might want to learn it, too.
The truth is, you can appeal a college's financial aid offer, and sometimes you will get more money. But you are unlikely to spark a bidding war over your kid, and in many situations, schools will not budge.
"Families can't really lose anything by asking ... but they need to go into this with their eyes wide open," said Martha Savery, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Education Financing Authority and a former financial aid director for Harvard Graduate School of Education. "In many, many cases, the colleges have gone out with their best offer."
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the richer the school, the less likely it is to cut you a bigger break. Harvard, Yale and other elite universities with fat endowments offer generous aid to those with financial need, often meeting 100 percent, and let wealthier families pay their own way.
Merit scholarships, which are discounts on tuition that are not need-based, are more typically used by schools that have to recruit desirable students.
College consultant Lynn O'Shaughnessy published an angry email on her blog this spring from a disappointed mother who said her daughter, a National Merit scholar, had not received a single scholarship from any of the schools that accepted her. The parents were both doctors, so they did not get any need-based aid, either.
The schools the mother listed - Duke, University of Chicago and Washington University in St. Louis - were all what O'Shaughnessy called "collegiate alpha dogs" that enjoy such high rankings and reputations they do not have to offer many merit scholarships to attract all the students they need.
Other schools are worried about filling their seats with desirable students, although who gets merit scholarships can vary widely, said consultant Deborah Fox of Fox College Funding in San Diego.
Students with GPAs and test scores that fall within the top quartile of applicants, for example, may get extra help. The same may be true for those with athletic, musical or other talents the school needs that year.
Wealth is desirable, too. In one of the many ironies of college financing, families who can afford to pay the full sticker price of a school may get significant discounts to entice their kids to attend. All these differences can explain why financial aid offers may vary for the same family.
"Public schools are going to offer different financial aid packages than private," Savery said, "but if it's a school of the same type and the offer is remarkably different, it's worth asking why."
Families should also contact financial aid offices when the student's most desired school falls short.
"The answer will either be, 'We'll take another look' or 'We gave you our best offer,'" Savery said. "Either way, you’ll know."
Parents should not expect to play multiple schools off each other or aggressively demand financial concessions since those tactics can backfire.
Colleges will typically want to see any offer they would consider matching, and financial aid officials are less likely to be cooperative if they suspect families are gaming the system, consultants said.
The one circumstance where a vast majority of schools will at least consider boosting your aid is when your family has suffered a dramatic deterioration in its financial situation. Death, disability or layoffs may have altered your ability to pay, but so can other changes in expenses or income.
"If your family has significant medical expenses ... or if they've had to take in a family member or seen a reduction in hours, that's worth mentioning," Savery said.