Financial aid isn’t all cold, hard numbers measuring costs and what your family can afford to pay. Financial aid offices have a lot of power to offer more generous packages to students they think are right for the school and are more likely to attend. That’s why one of the best ways to get more financial aid is to apply to plenty of “target” and “safety” schools. These are the schools that fit you well and where you have the strongest chance of admission.
At a minimum, most colleges will offer you the financial aid you qualify for. But the specific aid package you’re offered, and whether or not that package is even more generous than what you’re eligible for, can have a lot to do with how badly the admissions office wants you at that school.
If you’re a strong student who fits well with that college, the financial aid office may give you an award package that has more "free" money, with fewer loans or work-study components.
On the other hand, if they’re not as interested in you, the opposite might be true. If a school really wants you, they also can give you a scholarship that has absolutely nothing to do with financial need.
Financial aid offices earmark a certain percentage of money every year just to lure academically appealing students. This practice is called "preferential packaging," and it’s not a dirty secret. Note the following from the financial aid office at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Penn.:
"Preferential packaging means, simply, that the students a college would most like to enroll will receive the most advantageous financial aid packages. A preferential financial aid package includes a far greater percentage of grant aid than self-help (loans and work). Because they have discretion over how much grant aid they choose to award a student, a college can award a bigger grant to a student they would really like to enroll. In some cases, the total of grant from the college and the loans the student is entitled to may exceed the student’s financial need."
The simple rule of thumb: if you want more financial aid, apply to the schools most likely to accept you.
Target and Safety Schools
Every year, there are B and even C students who get generous and unsolicited offers of aid from colleges. They do it by applying to plenty of target and safety schools that fit them well, and where they have a good chance of being admitted. The better the fit between you and a college, the more likely that school will entice you to attend.
Regardless of your GPA, you can find target and safety schools and avail yourself of potential scholarships. We also recommend that you pick a financial safety school, one you’re sure you can get into and pay for even if you get no financial aid.
If you apply to the right colleges, use a net price calculator and file all the appropriate forms, you probably won’t need a financial safety school. Still, it’s always good to have a fallback position when things don’t go as planned, even if it's due to outside factors you and your family can't control.