7 On Your Side: Negotiating the cost of college

BRONX, New York (WABC) -- Every year, $20 billion in financial aid, including $3 billion in Pell Grants, is left on the table.

This happens at the same time the amount of student loans has sky-rocketed. Right now it's at an all-time high: $1.5 trillion.

That's more than credit cards and auto debt combined. If you're applying for college in the fall or are finishing up a year in school, you may know we're in crunch time to apply for financial aid.

There's a June 30 filing deadline looming for the 2018/2019 school year, with a 2019/2020 deadline next year. But how do you file those complex forms? And after you've received your aid package in the mail, how can you get even more money from colleges?

One teenager from the Bronx got help through a new startup assisting students with the financial aid application process.

Doralis Sosa wanted to attend college, but her father died when she was 12 after bringing his children from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx. Her mother remained behind, leaving Sosa with no resources for school at all.

"Doing this by myself, it's super overwhelming and scary to think about," the 20-year-old said.

She asked colleges for aid, applied for grants and and filed for federal loans, but still fell short on money.

Enter tenacious 20-something Charlie Javice whose start-up, Frank, fights to get students like Sosa more dollars in aid.

"There's 20 percent of all aid that's leftover for appeals, so do not be that idiot who didn't use the 20 percent of funds still left available at this time, do it now, its urgent, this is when you need to make your case," Javice said.

In the U.S., 45 million would-be students are eligible for financial aid. But, less than half -- only about 20 million -- even fill out financial aid form.

"It's a government form which means its painful," Javice said.

She's talking about the dreaded FAFSA that determines eligibility for financial aid. But her website has simplified the process and that part of it is free.

Javice warns mistakes about income, salary and assets can cost a student thousands in aid when filling out the FAFSA form.

For example, Sosa didn't know that because she was being raised by her sisters, she should apply as an independent. She also didn't realize anyone can appeal the financial aid package sent by her college.

"Most people have no idea they can appeal similar to a job offer, people accept their first one instead of negotiating," Javice said.

Her company helped Sosa explain her circumstances which resulted in more money from the college.

That meant Sosa, a sophomore at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has most of her $60,000 tuition bill covered by financial aid.

"I now have hope. Hope for having a better future, hope for having a better life," she said.

The big takeaway is when you appeal aid, first contact each school's financial aid office to ask what their appeals process is. It varies from school to school. Next send an appeal letter that includes explaining why you need extra aid. It could be everything from loss of income to you received a better offer from a rival university. And remember, provide documentation proving your circumstances.

Javice says you should think of this appeal like you're fighting an insurance company to cover a medical bill. You'll hear back in two to four weeks.

Click here for more tips on appealing financial aid.

The Frank website may charge a one-time fee of $144.95 to help in your appeal's process.

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