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Your child has been admitted to their top choice institution--congratulations! If you have received your aid offer and are nervous the school is not a perfect financial fit for your family, it can feel disappointing.

Although college is one of the most important investments you can make, you need to be honest about what options work within your budget.

Here are a few tips that might help pull that dream school in reach:

Negotiate for more aid: Although most colleges have a formal appeal process for extenuating circumstances, not all colleges will negotiate an aid package. The reality is very few colleges have the ability to meet the full needs of every student admitted. Colleges use their limited dollars and sophisticated predictive models as a way to shape the incoming class. As a result, the way colleges award merit scholarships can be very subjective and designed to serve the college’s priorities, not to recognize your student’s individual achievements.

If you negotiate, find an advocate in the enrollment office and try to discern how they are tracking toward their goals. Figure out how your student contributes to those enrollment priorities It can help to show senior year grades. Be prepared to discuss how you’ve budgeted for college, what you are able to contribute, how much you can afford to borrow, and the amount of additional money you are requesting. Be polite, honest about other aid offers, and sincere if the school is your student’s first choice. Remember that every additional dollar you negotiate for takes aid away from a student who may have more need.

Borrow responsibly: Despite the surge in student debt in this country, it’s important to remember that college is a high-returning investment. If a school is a good fit for your student’s values and interests, has good graduation and career outcomes, and has low default rates, consider taking out low-interest loans, offered by the government or school.

If your aid package includes loans, you do not need to take out the full amount of the loan offered. The average student indebtedness in California is around $37,000. Monthly, that’s $300 – $400 over the repayment period, and about the average cost of a new car. This amount is usually reasonable for a new graduate earning $35,000 – $40,000 in a first job.

Attend community college when you’re home for the summer: Time is money. One way to accelerate degree completion is to enroll in community college during the summer between terms. Usually, this is most effective for lower-division coursework.

There are often different limits on the amount of coursework an incoming versus an enrolled student can transfer. Before you commit to the school, make an appointment with an academic advisor to find out the stipulations for taking and accepting outside transfer credit.

Don’t buy new textbooks: Buying textbooks new from the campus bookstore is antiquated and expensive. Take it from an English major and bibliophile who went on to have lots of schooling–I never look at the books I bought for undergraduate syllabi.

Consider renting textbooks from Amazon or Chegg. If your student’s learning style permits, digital copies of the textbook may also be a good option and affordable. For margin-writers like myself, consider buying used textbooks or paperback versions. For any books your student does purchase, try to sell them back to the bookstore or to peers at the end of the term. Save your receipts, as you can get a tax credit for book expenses.

Find a job on campus.: I used to hear the argument that a student’s job is to focus on schoolwork.  Although this is true, studies indicate that working up to 15 hours per week is correlated with higher GPAs than working more hours or none at all. Having your student work on campus to save money and contribute toward college also gives them a stronger sense of belonging and a level of investment in their own education.

On-campus jobs in admissions, research, and tutoring are likely to involve much more than administrative duties. Resident assistant roles, often available to upperclassmen, are selective but come with stipends and housing waivers.

Pursue departmental aid: Some scholarships are awarded by academic departments, rather than the enrollment office.

Contact the academic or divisional dean to understand how this aid is distributed. Although much of it is awarded to current students, incoming students who show potential may be considered. Either way, you can learn how to be competitive for these awards now or in the future.

Still unsure if this school is worth it? Then it probably isn’t. If you’re uncomfortable with the amount of debt you or your student would be taking on, or just don’t know how to cover the full four years, your student is likely better off at a more affordable option.


Laura Reisert Kalinkewicz is a higher education professional with over a decade of experience. She oversaw undergraduate admissions at Pepperdine University and completed doctoral coursework at Azusa Pacific University. Her career has focused on counseling students, parents, colleges, and enterprise companies on admissions, financial aid, technology, talent, and workforce development. Visit Laura Reisert Kalinkewicz's profile.