NEW YORK (MainStreet) — I bet when you started opening the financial aid award letters from the colleges that accepted your child, you were shocked by the dollar amount of the different loans listed there that left you scratching your head about how you are going to pay for your child's education. This is even truer if you didn't qualify for any Federal Pell Grants (income-based federal aid, maxed at $5,645 for the 2013–14 award year) or your child wasn't eligible for any other state-based need or academic grants.

Also See: Pell Grants -- Last Line of Defense Against the Dumb-But-Rich?

So, middle-class parents who don't have the cash saved but want to reduce dependence on loans want to know if they can question the institution's financial aid package. Cyndy McDonald, founder of McDonald Associates and a 20-year financial aid and higher education consultant, tells Mainstreet the answer is an unequivocal "yes."

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In fact, when my college daughter received her NCAA athletic scholarship offers from three different schools, we found out first-hand how you can indeed ask for more.

What does financial aid actually mean?

"Consumers think financial aid means the colleges are giving you money to attend, but the college definition of financial aid includes any resources used to help to pay for college including loans, grants, scholarships, work-study, merit awards and academic grants," says McDonald.

What you want to do is maximize all of those resources while minimizing loans, says McDonald. "So, if a college is your child's top choice and your student is in the top of the academic profile for that college and you think the college has missed something in your financial status or your student has something more to offer, you should definitely speak up to the financial aid office and ask for more money," she said.

About a FAFSA

One of the most widely misunderstood tools of the college financial aid process is the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form parents must fill out yearly. The basic premise of the FAFSA (and the CCS Profile, which some colleges also require) is we, as parents, bear the responsibility of paying for college, explains McDonald. So, we enter our income and expenses on the form, and it links to our income taxes and we think that final line called the EFC (Expected Family Contribution) will tell us what we should be paying for college.

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"But, the college is using it at a tool to discern your financial stability to absorb the cost of college over time," McDonald said. "The EFC is only an estimate, and it's not a realistic amount of money for most families to pay for college out of their take home pay." .

Understanding the Award letter

McDonald explains the total cost of school attendance listed on your financial aid award letter should include room and board, tuition, books, transportation and personal expenses (or miscellaneous costs). That total cost of attendance minus your EFC is your "need." If your EFC is higher, then you have no "need" and you're in a "merit" category which includes other institutional grants and scholarships. Otherwise, the balance will be made up of loans or the amount you can pay in cash or some combination.

You may also see a small portion relegated to an unsubsidized Stafford student loan, which tops out at $23,000 for all four years.

"Student Stafford loans gives kids some skin in the game and that amount of student loan debt is manageable, so taking the smaller subsidized government student loans may help," McDonald said.

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But she says to watch out for those Parent PLUS loans or any private student loans over and above that can put a big debt burden on you and your child and instead look for ways you and your child can reduce that amount and by contacting the financial aid office and simply asking for more.

Also See: The Department of Education Set to Consider Changes to Parent PLUS Loans

Only challenge if it's your top-choice school

McDonald says to be smart about the college process at the outset and only apply to schools where you are at the top of the academic profile and also where you have something special to offer the school such as athletics, performing arts, club or newspaper skills, debating or volunteering -- something to bring that will make a school want to add you to its freshman class.

Once you've received all the acceptance letters and financial aid award letters, you can evaluate them and decide which your first-choice school is.

That's the school you reach out to about increasing their aid.

"I call it the first-choice strategy," says McDonald. "You have to be at the top of their profile to make it work or they won't negotiate with you. They have to be interested in you for some reason including your child's desire to attend as a first-choice school."

Use that EFC if you notice a gap

If you notice on the award letter that the school is offering you much less in aid by several thousand dollars than the EFC suggests, you can call out that gap. Simply ask if they can come up a little more in aid toward that EFC.

Also See: College Q&A: How Do I Get the Most Aid for My Child

When I noticed that gap on my daughter's first-choice award letter which included a large athletic and academic scholarship already, I called up the financial aid office and simply asked the representatives there to come up to our EFC. I said my daughter was excited to play volleyball for this school's team over the other schools that had made athletic scholarship offers and if we could come to an agreement on the aid, she would sign that day. And they did.

"By asking, you may get several thousand more dollars thrown in, especially if they want your child for some reason," McDonald said. "By not asking, you definitely get nothing."

Keep open lines of financial communication

Maybe you hate to haggle or feel greedy asking for more money from the college, but when done correctly, the college will do what it can to get you to enroll.

McDonald advises that you send a letter and an email reiterating the school's first-choice status and stating what was missing from the financial information the college has for you.

State the exact changes (such as a spouse's unemployment or a large medical expense) to your financial situation in exact dollar terms if possible and include any additional information about your child the college needs to make a determination. State you will follow-up with a phone call (or arrange an in-person visit with the student, if possible) on a certain date.

The right time to challenge aid is once you've been admitted and get an award letter, usually in April and May 1.

For returning students, any time your finances change and you are no longer able to pay as much as you did in previous years, you can challenge the financial aid in the exact same way, advises McDonald.

What you don't know about financial aid

What any college has for financial aid every year may change, and while every college calculates income-based "need" the same way, additional merit aid is calculated differently.

"Don't ignore schools you think you can't afford," says McDonald. "You just never know what a school wants most and how much money it has to give and it could be your child they are willing to pay for."

According to a 2012 Study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the vast majority of very high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to selective colleges. Many selective institutions may cost them less due to generous financial aid, than the smaller-budgeted local two-year and non-selective four-year institutions to which they usually apply.

"If the school sends you back a financial aid award letter made of up tens of thousands of dollars in loans, they should not be admitting students who can clearly not afford it, who they are not willing to entice by offering more aid," McDonald said.

McDonald tells Mainstreet she does not advise blindly taking on those loans to attend that school and to look for another school where your student is at the top of the academic profile with something to offer, instead.

Be prepared to make up the difference

If the college comes up in its financial aid, it may offer other ways to help lessen your dependence on loans such as a work-study program where your child works on campus and earnings go toward tuition. Or additional merit aid for talents, clubs, test scores or high GPA. Returning juniors and seniors may be offered dorm RA (Resident Advisor or Assistant) status which can result in a big chunk of dorm expense saved. Your child can also apply for outside scholarships to earn thousands more. The school most likely takes part in a tuition management program for making monthly cash payments, too.

Also See: The Cost of the Wrong Major

According to a 2012 Post Graduation Debt and Spending Study by Accounting Principals, approximately one-third of recent grads would have pursued more scholarships or financial aid options, pursued a major that would have led to a higher paying job, or gotten a job while in college and started saving earlier, if they could do it all over again.

And you don't want your child to be one of them.

--Written by Naomi Mannino for MainStreet

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