What if the financial aid award letter is a big disappointment?

By Lee Nelson

When my youngest son decided that theater was his passion, he put his heart and soul into it. In fact, when he began studying theater at Lincoln College, a two-year private school, his GPA jumped to a B, from his C-D average in high school. Now, the time has come for him to continue his education by transferring to a four-year university that will hopefully catapult him into an amazing job in the theater world.

He thought he found the perfect place: Columbia College, a private college overlooking Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago. During orientation, he was told that the university could almost guarantee a job after graduation for those who excel in the technical side of theater. This was perfect. He had found a school where he could study his passion and that would prepare him for a job after graduation. I was excited for him until the financial aid letter award arrived. Yikes!

The total cost to attend Columbia College is $42,438 — that includes room and board, tuition, fees, books, and about $3,000 in miscellaneous expenses. I’m guessing that last one means those late night pizza deliveries.

After filing our FAFSA, I thought for sure a lot of that $42,438 might be covered. But, boy was I wrong. Talk about a lowball offer — $10,445! How in the world could he or I afford the remaining $31,993? Come on, folks. My FAFSA tells me that our family contribution should be $10. That’s it. But somehow I'm supposed to magically come up with $32,000, as a single mother on a freelance writer's wages? I was actually shocked that their number was so low. How do other families do it? Breaking the news to my son didn’t go so well.

He was calm for a while, and then the shouting began. I was trying to convince him that Illinois State University, the other school he was accepted into, gave him enough to cover almost all the costs and would be just as good. That’s not what he wanted to hear. Columbia College had become his dream. So, after the dust had settled, he said, “This is my decision. I will do something about it.”

So, he began applying for every scholarship on the college’s website that he was eligible for. Warning, though: many scholarship deadlines are in March; he started this process in April. He has also made an appointment to talk to a financial aid counselor at the college. And he’s researching how to approach them on the subject of more money.

Most of the experts say that you can’t just ask for more money; you need to have a reason that the FAFSA form doesn’t ask about or reveal. He might have a good appeal — his estranged father is supposed to pay one-third of his college costs. That hasn’t happened in the two years he's been attending college.

My son is also checking into any grants or scholarships with obscure requirements. And, believe me, there are some bizarre ones, like kids who create prom outfits using Duck Tape®. They send in their photos after attending prom and get a chance at some big scholarships. You truly never know what's out there until you start looking. My son does have other college choices with financial aid offers, but his heart is set on this one. I’m just hoping that his heart doesn’t let his head agree to taking out huge student loans if the financial aid doesn’t increase.

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About the author

Lee3Lee Nelson, a professional writer from the Chicago area, is a single mom raising two sons. She got one son through college, and is now working on getting the other one through, with lots of ups and downs and financial obstacles.