Great holiday gifts; good news about college aid; budgeting tips from a pro; family trees THIS COURT RULING MAY INCREASE YOUR COLLEGE AID
By Beth Kobliner

(MONEY Magazine) – Parents of students looking for financial aid from colleges may now be able to get hundreds or even thousands of dollars more than just a few years ago. Reason: a September federal court ruling that may make it easier for parents and students to play one college's aid package against another's. Ruling in a civil suit filed by the Justice Department in 1991, Judge Louis Bechtle concluded that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had violated federal antitrust laws by allowing its aid officers to meet with similar officials from 23 other elite eastern colleges, including all eight Ivy League schools, to share confidential financial information about applicants. MIT was singled out because, unlike the other schools, it chose to contest the matter in court. (The college is now appealing the decision.) The practice led to aid packages that often varied little from one university to another for high school students who had applied to more than one college in the group. The ruling effectively prohibits all colleges from discussing their proposed award packages with one another. As a result, college-aid authorities anticipate that some institutions may be tempted to enter into financial aid bidding wars for the students they want most. The other students, however, might wind up getting smaller packages. Tips for landing your best aid deal: -- Look for schools where your child is likely to stand out from the crowd. For instance, you may be able to increase your chances for a bigger aid award if your son or daughter will add to the school's geographic diversity. Even at the top schools, financial aid officers exercise professional judgment for the students they really want. -- Make sure your child ''pairs'' aid applications with similar schools. Instead of applying to only one Ivy League school, for instance, go for two. This way, if your son or daughter is accepted at both but prefers the school that's offering the smaller aid package, you may have leverage when trying to get the one you favor to increase its award. -- Be tactful in challenging a college's aid award. Don't call or write a financial aid officer and insist that he or she ''match'' or ''beat'' another school's offer. Instead, politely ask the administrator to take another look. Offer to fax the more generous college's aid award letter to the other institution. Says Edwin Below, director of financial aid at Wesleyan University: ''I am much more likely to see if we overlooked something when families are honest about their financial concerns than if they treat the process like they were buying a used car.''