5 Ways to Improve Your Financial Aid Package

81 percent… that's how much tuition at private, four-year colleges has risen between 1993 and 2004. The average price tag per year is $30,367, about the cost of a fully loaded, 2006 Ford Mustang -- and you'll need 4 of those if you want your child to graduate!

The good news? Over $134 billion in financial aid is available to students this year, and nearly 62 percent of full-time college students will receive grant aid. While the federal government coughs up the majority of that money, universities, corporations, social organizations, and interest groups are also contributing substantial sums to the funding of education in America. Below are 5 keys to taking advantage of the financial aid system so that your child's education doesn't break the bank.

1. Negotiate

Congress allows college administrators to make adjustments to federal financial aid offers by considering the "special circumstances" of the applicant. This is called a "professional judgment review." Special circumstances can be anything unusual about an applicant's financial background, including changes in tax liability, job loss or salary reduction, large medical bills that are not covered by health insurance, costs of caring for a dependent, and one-time events such as the death of the head of a household. A recent survey found that nearly 50 percent of all requests for review resulted in an increased offer of financial aid. Many institutions ask for information about special circumstances in the initial financial aid application; others allow supplemental information to be submitted once an initial offer is made. Either way, the offer you first receive from a school is often not the final offer. Consider what special circumstances apply to your situation and then gather as much evidence as possible to present to the financial aid office.

2. Do Your Homework, And Don't Whine

While each school handles financial aid differently, they are all equally averse to emotional pleas for money. Federal guidelines and internal procedures guide the financial aid process. A certain amount of subjectivity is involved, but you will not make friends by submitting essays about family history, international travel, overcoming obstacles, or your lifelong dream of attending a particular school. Instead, focus your energy on gathering documentation to support your request for a professional judgment review. The financial aid department can't just take your word for it; after all, they are handing out huge sums of money, much of it coming from the federal government. IRS forms, medical bills, and other official documentation will be useful in making your case, so gather your resources before making your pitch for a larger financial aid offer.

3. Don't Be Afraid to Show Your Cards

Financial aid offers are not confidential, so you can share with School B the offer you received from School A. If you receive a large offer from one school and would prefer to attend another institution that has offered less aid, use the higher offer to your advantage. Submit proof of the larger offer (complete with any accompanying documentation, including special circumstances) to your preferred school. If you're certain of your desire to attend that school, put that in writing (i.e., "If you are able to match the financial aid offer of School B, I would accept your offer of admission to School A"). In some cases, this may influence School A to increase its offer of aid, especially if Schools A and B are "peer" institutions. To maximize your chances, considering applying to schools that are natural competitors—Ivy League colleges, state schools in the same state, and universities with strong reputations in a particular field (technology, agriculture, etc.). Schools will be more likely to increase aid packages if you can demonstrate that a competing institution has beaten their offer. Word of warning: do not use words like "negotiate," because admissions officers don't like to admit that that's what they do. Ask for a "review" instead.

4. You Don't Need to be an Athlete to Earn a Scholarship

Millions of dollars are handed out each year in scholarships that have nothing to do with athletic prowess. In addition to a variety of subject-specific scholarships (for students interested in a particular major, such as engineering, computer science, or nursing), many corporations and social organizations offer scholarship money. Some, such as the Coca-Cola First Generation Scholarship Program, direct aid to students who are the first in their families to attend college. Others, like the Boy Scouts and Elks, provide scholarship money exclusively to members and the children of members. Some are need-based, while others award scholarships after reviewing essays submitted by applicants. The awards may not cover all your expenses at a private university, but even one such grant can help alleviate the burden of financing your education. But be warned: many schools will take "outside scholarships" into account and reduce your aid package. The outside scholarship strategy is best for students whose financial aid is more likely to consist of loans or work-study earnings than grants.

5. Start Your Search Yesterday

Whatever sources you plan to use to fund your child's education—federal money, private grants, corporate scholarships, start your preparation and research as early as possible. Submit your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid ) as soon as possible after January 1 in the year your child will be a freshman, and submit college-specific aid forms as soon as they become available, because many schools allocate their own funds on a first-come-first-serve basis. Foundations offering private grants may ask for a detailed application, and corporate scholarships often require applicants to submit essays demonstrating why they are worthy candidates for a financial award. No matter the source, you will face deadlines, some of which will come a full year before you hope to use the money. Getting an early start can be worth thousands of dollars down the line, so when it comes to funding your child's education, time really is money.

For a list of financial aid resources, click here.