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It’s a topic that will significantly impact both your child and your bank account: how to negotiate the best deal on a college education. Most parents take this subject lightly, and figure whatever the schools end up offering them is the best that they will get. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When you went to purchase or lease your car, did you accept the first offer they made you, or did you look at their price as a “starting point” for negotiation? What about when you bought your home? Did you purchase it at list price, or did you muster up all of your negotiating skills to try to get the seller to come down in price? So why is college any different?

Even the cheapest state schools today will cost you about $13,000 between tuition, fees, books, room and board, and miscellaneous expenses. A private university can easily cost $34,000-$50,000 a year and up. Now multiply those amounts by four. And that doesn’t even include graduate school!

A college education for your child (or children) is one of the single biggest investments you will ever make in your lifetime. It makes sense to treat it like any other major purchase, and do your best to negotiate the best possible financial aid package.

So where do you begin? For starters, your children should be doing their best to get good grades in school. In addition, they should be taking some type of review course to get a good score on their SATs/ACTs.

Second, start narrowing down your school choices to colleges and universities where your child lies in the top 25 percent of the applicant pool. This will significantly increase your chances of getting a good financial aid package.

Next, start researching schools that have the best policies on giving good financial aid packages. You want your child to apply to schools that will meet most or all of your family’s financial need. It is also important to pick schools that have a history of giving more free money and fewer loans. Follow this link to learn more about picking a college with a good financial aid package. Hint – Pick schools that are well endowed and have a lot of money to give out to students. Private schools tend to have far more money available than state schools do. We recommend picking a couple of state schools as “safety” schools. The rest should be well-endowed private schools.

Fourth, apply to at least six to eight schools to insure that your child gets a good offer from one or two of them. If all the schools are of the same academic caliber and some give you a good financial aid package, while others give you poor packages, it will allow you to pit one college against the other when negotiating for a better financial aid package. Schools of equal caliber will often times compete for the same student by offering aggressive financial aid packages. Be sure to take advantage of this.

Finally,  know your numbers in advance. For example, do you know what your “Expected Family Contribution” is? It is the minimum amount that the government expects you to pay towards any school. Schools determine what they are going to offer you by subtracting your Expected Family Contribution from their “Cost of Attendance.” This provides them with your family’s “Financial Need.”

Frequently, schools will offer parents far less than what they were eligible to receive. Most families don’t dispute this since they have no idea of what they should have been offered in the first place.

Don’t let this happen to you. Know your numbers in advance. Find out what your Expected Family Contribution is. Then, find out the cost of attendance at each school. Make sure the schools include all costs such as tuition, fees, books, room and board, living expenses, transportation, and miscellaneous expenses.

Once you get these two numbers, calculate your financial need at each school, and make sure their financial aid packages meets most or all of your need. If they don’t, call or write the school to discuss why they “left you short.” Try to create a subtle competition with other schools your child applied to.

Remember to apply to at least six to eight schools. If you follow these steps, you should have no problem getting a great package from at least two or three of them.

About the Author: Scott Weingold, co-founder of College Planning Network LLC and publisher of CollegeMadeSimple.com, is one of the nation’s leading authorities on college financial planning. He was ranked the #1 ‘College Financial Aid Expert Worth Knowing About’ in the country by CollegeStats.org and is co-author of The Real Secret To Paying For College. As a sought after speaker, Scott contributes his expertise to CNN Money, Smart Money, and Reuters, and gives insider tips to parents directly through his e-letter College Funding Made Simple. For more information and resources, visit http://www.CollegeMadeSimple.com and http://www.CollegePlanningNet.com. Contact Scott at info@collegeplanningnet.com.

Earnest Parenting: help for parents trying to manage college expenses.