9 Tips to Help You Play the Financial Aid Game

playing the financial aid game

9 Tips to Help You Play the Financial Aid Game

Published April 19, 2020 | Last Updated July 17th, 2023 at 12:53 pm

playing the financial aid game

Over the last decade, the process of getting into college has become akin to playing a “game.”

The “winners” are good at understanding the rules of the game and then figuring out ways to maneuver through it, legally and strategically, of course.

In order to successfully complete the game, the contestants must know to how to pay for college; especially mastering the financial aid aspect.

Here are 9 tips to help you get to the finish line.

How to Play the College Financial Aid Game

1. If your stats are Ivy League quality, don’t overlook less selective schools where the money will be.

Students with academic stats and test scores good enough to consider highly selective colleges,  should also look at less celebrated schools, which are likely to offer more financial aid to attract higher caliber students. 

2. Fill out the FAFSA. 

Even if you think your family makes too much money, you should still fill out the FAFSA. Some schools will only offer merit scholarships if the FAFSA (and CSS Profile) have been filled out.

The other reason to fill out the FAFSA, is in the unfortunate case that something happens to the breadwinning parent and family incomes change dramatically.

With your FAFSA on file, schools can more quickly help in this type of situation. 

3. Understand that they want you BAD! 

Colleges don’t always make their “institutional priorities” public, so you won’t know if they are trying to recruit more students from a particular part of the country than they have in previous years.

And you won’t know if they are trying to pump up the quality of the debate team.

You could be pleasantly surprised to get extra money from a school because they really want you, and you didn’t realize it. 

4. Free money doesn’t come with an interest rate.

There are all different types of financial aid, and some colleges even  list loans as part of their financial aid package.

Loans, unlike grants, do not reduce the cost of college, though loans with below-market interest rates could reduce the cost of borrowing.

5. Don’t assume aid is a four-year promise.

Just because aid is offered in the freshman year, doesn’t mean the school will offer it in subsequent years. Don’t be surprised. Ask what will happen in the sophomore through senior years.

6. Plan for tuition your student’s senior year to have increased 10% or more from their freshman year.

Tuition doesn’t follow inflation, it leads it. But your scholarships won’t.

Tuition seems to increase every year, and in excess of what inflation is. Unfortunately, scholarship and grant money may not increase at the same rate.

You may start with a scholarship that covers 33 percent of tuition and wind up with that same scholarship covering only 25 percent of tuition in later years.

(That doesn’t mean you can’t ask admissions officials about that, and request schools address and possibly provide for that issue.

7. Negotiation is a dirty word, but it works.

Tuition and other costs are printed in brochures and posted on websites, but they are not carved in stone.

Let a college know if you have other offers; try to negotiate a better deal.

Colleges are particularly receptive if you have an offer from a very comparable school.

For example, many selective colleges will match a financial aid package from another selective school.

Bottom line is it can’t hurt to ask.

8. Control the controllable: Make the deadlines!

There is so much in the college admissions process that families feel they can’t control–colleges determine whether or not they will be test-optional, essay questions, early decision/action options, institutional priorities, and more.

The one thing families can make sure they can control is meeting deadlines.

So when you miss a deadline, don’t count on colleges being understanding. 

9. File a new FAFSA every year.
Be safe, not sorry. 

Family financial situations can change year to year, and sometimes dramatically (a sudden health issue, loss of job, etc.).

Schools don’t use old FAFSAs to continue to offer aid.

Each year starts anew and families must fill out the FAFSA for every year they want to be considered for aid.

Ticket Pricing and Financial Aid

A college education will be expensive but maybe less so if students and their families know the rules.

Tuition is like airline ticket pricing, everyone on the plane is paying a different price, depending on lots of different factors–business traveler, last-minute purchase, decreased route demand, etc.

Tuition and financial aid is a similar game.

Do your best to understand the rule book and you’ll be looking at the starting point from the finish line before you know it.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

Merit Scholarship Guide: Factors, Tips, Full List and Search Tool

How to Pick a College That Loves You Back

Steps to Success: A Full-Ride Scholarship Recipient’s Guide to the College Admissions Process





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