Financial aid checklist for college visits

Campustour 425

By Scholarship America

Be a savvy consumer. That’s the advice from Scholarship America, the nation’s largest private provider of college scholarships. It’s timely guidance for students and their families as they tour college campuses this spring.

“Our guiding principles include: address student debt at the front end, increase equity and ensure students get the full benefit of their aid,” according to Robert C. Ballard, president and CEO, Scholarship America.

College is the biggest purchase in most students’ young lives, and the biggest purchase some will ever make, other than a house. Campus visits are a great way to get a first-hand feel for a school — and do some bargaining. Scholarship America recommends the following tips to negotiate for the best financial aid offer:

  1. Be sure to negotiate
    Schedule a meeting with a financial aid officer during your visit and ask how the school can help you. Most students do not pay “list price” for tuition. That’s just where the conversation starts. Have a plan for how you will negotiate for the best deal. Why are you a student they should want on campus? Why do you need financial assistance?
  2. Know your leverage and use it
    What value do you bring to the school? Are your grades exceptional? Do you intend to participate in activities such as athletics, music or theatre? Some schools have specific slots to fill for various campus activities and may offer scholarships to those students. Talking to a coach or program director can help you evaluate their program — and identify potential financial assistance.
  3. Seek scholarships—and avoid scholarship scams
    Scholarships can be a great way to reduce the financial burden of college. Be sure to check with an employer—the student’s and the parents’—to see what they offer. Thousands of public and private scholarships are listed through reputable resources, including: FastWeb, Big Future(College Board) or Scholarship America. Carefully read all financial aid documents. Some schools only guarantee aid for one year. You should ask for it to be renewable. You should never have to pay to apply for or find a scholarship.
  4. Ask about displacement practices
    Many colleges want to know what outside scholarships you will receive—and then adjust their financial aid to you downward by a comparable amount. They argue that since you have less need, their aid should go to someone else. But the effect of this displacementis to negate a scholarship you may have worked hard to obtain, and that someone chose to give you. If you expect to receive a scholarship, ask the college not to displace it before you commit to attend there. Scholarship America has created a Preferred Collegiate Partners Program listing schools that pledge not to displace scholarships from Scholarship America.
  5. Minimize student loans
    For many students, loans are a necessary part of paying for college, but they should be your last resort. Ask the college what other financial relief they are willing to provide by reducing tuition, or awarding scholarships or grants. Think carefully about how much debt you want to have—and can afford to pay back—after you graduate.
  6. Be aware of your tax liability
    Scholarships are taxed? Yes, unfortunately. The portion of any financial aid that goes to pay for living expenses (room, board, travel, food, etc.) is currently taxable at the parents’ income tax rate. (Or, the student’s tax rate if they are covering their own expenses.) That may not be fair, but it is current law. Scholarship America and other scholarship providers are calling for an end to scholarship taxation. But until Congress changes the law, students and families should be sure to budget for taxes. Another strategy is to negotiate for financial aid that pays for tuition and books (which is not taxable) rather than living expenses.

Most colleges rely on information provided on the federal Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) when determining eligibility for financial aid. Be sure to complete this form annually.

Students and families need to be literate in financial aid, and have a plan for negotiating the best terms. Just like buying a car or a house, the more information you have, the stronger your bargaining position.


Scholarship America is a non-profit organization that helps students fulfill their college dreams. Scholarship America is the largest private scholarship provider in the U.S., and has distributed nearly $4.3 billion to more than 2.6 million students. The organization works with partners to lower barriers to a college education and give students the support needed to succeed.