(NEW YORK) -- High school senior Tyler Kozimor got into his dream school, Ithaca College. He’s taken the tours, applied and has his heart set on studying broadcast communications and wrestling.
But his family is wrestling with the price of tuition which is more than $50,000 a year. Tyler was initially offered about $21,000 in financial aid, but for the Kozimors, who own a small auto shop in Hackettstown, N.J., it’s tough.
Unless they can get additional assistance, they’ll have to tell Tyler, their youngest of three kids, he can’t go to the school of his dreams.
Over the past 30 years, college tuition and fees have increased by a whopping 570 percent, according to a report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. The average American family can now expect to pay almost $9,000 a year for an in-state public four year college and almost $30,000 for a private college. College costs forces more than 70 percent of American families to eliminate possible colleges.
The number of student borrowers doubled from the 2001-02 school year to the 2011-12 school year, according to a 2012 College Board report.
But there’s a silver lining. Besides government and university loans and grants, advisers estimate millions of dollars are left on the floor in financial aid money every year because families don’t get everything they’re eligible for.
Kal Chany, founder and president of Campus Consultants Inc. and author of Paying for College Without Going Broke, has several tips for American families when it comes to grabbing that financial aid money.
When it comes to colleges, he said, think of them as businesses. You have more leverage than you think you do, but you have to ask for it.
1. You can appeal that first financial aid package.
“The first aid package you get isn’t necessarily the final offer and not necessarily the best offer from the school,” he said. Chany said to think of colleges as businesses. You have more leverage than you think you do but you have to ask for it.
“Their view is, if we can get you to come to the school and only give you X amount of aid, why should we give you X plus when you’re going to come anyway,” he said.
To appeal, first check with the aid office to determine their appeal procedure. Also, the parent, not the student, should handle the appeal if parental information was required on the aid forms.
Spell out exactly why you think you deserve more aid including specific dollar amounts regarding special circumstances instead of general terms. Include supporting third party documentation to bolster your case.
“That’s really the key, is knowing how to represent your situation so that you demonstrate the highest need. You want to be polite and cordial, you don’t want to be acting like Jerry Maguire, ‘show me the money.’ That’s not going to get you anywhere with them,” Chany said.
2. Use a special phrase to start your appeal letter to the college.
“You’re sending this letter ‘to request reconsideration of the aid that was offered’ to your son,” Chany said.
You should avoid confrontational language. Never use the words “negotiate” or “bargain.”
3. Tiny mistakes cost big money.
Chany said the Kozimors greatly overstated their business assets, a common mistake, and hadn’t taken advantage of credits offered to families with multiple children in college, another common miss.
Make sure your past tax returns and future tax estimates are in order and accurate. Financial aid forms are notoriously complicated and one of the primary reasons families miss out on major dollars is due to inaccurately-filled out forms.
“The instructions are confusing,” Chany said. “It’s a complicated process. And there’s also the emotions involved in doing things for your child. So it’s only human nature that often times people make mistakes on the form.”
Other common mistakes that can result in less aid include forgetting to sign the aid forms, leaving required questions blank or using the wrong academic year’s version of the aid forms.
4. Don’t focus on those smaller local scholarships.
“The private grants and scholarships, that’s one of the biggest myths out there,” Chany said.
The federal government, state governments and colleges themselves are the ones that award the bulk of financial aid money. Those small scholarships may take away from the total you’d get anyway. Check with your school about their outside scholarship policy.
5. Know your deadlines.
Some financial aid forms are due as early as the end of December so you shouldn’t wait until you’ve been accepted to start applying for financial aid. Colleges assume it’s your responsibility to submit all the necessary completed forms and may not notify you if documents are missing or your application is incomplete until it is too late.
6. Know who to trust with outside help.
When hiring outside financial aid help, make sure the individual or group is knowledgeable about financial aid as well as personal finance and income taxes. Don’t automatically assume your accountant is a financial aid expert.
With these tips, the Kozimors were able to score $7,000 a year in aid, saving them nearly $30,000 over Tyler’s four year education.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio