NEW YORK ( MainStreet) — I bet when you started opening the financial aid award letters from the colleges that accepted your child, you were shocked by the dollar amount of the different loans listed there that left you scratching your head about how you are going to pay for your child's education. This is even truer if you didn't qualify for any Federal Pell Grants (income-based federal aid, maxed at $5,645 for the 2013–14 award year) or your child wasn't eligible for any other state-based need or academic grants.

Also See: Pell Grants -- Last Line of Defense Against the Dumb-But-Rich?

So, middle-class parents who don't have the cash saved but want to reduce dependence on loans want to know if they can question the institution's financial aid package . Cyndy McDonald, founder of McDonald Associates and a 20-year financial aid and higher education consultant, tells Mainstreet the answer is an unequivocal "yes."

Also See: Cost and Financial Aid Increasingly Influence Students' Choice of College

In fact, when my college daughter received her NCAA athletic scholarship offers from three different schools, we found out first-hand how you can indeed ask for more.

What does financial aid actually mean?

"Consumers think financial aid means the colleges are giving you money to attend, but the college definition of financial aid includes any resources used to help to pay for college including loans, grants, scholarships, work-study, merit awards and academic grants," says McDonald.

What you want to do is maximize all of those resources while minimizing loans, says McDonald. "So, if a college is your child's top choice and your student is in the top of the academic profile for that college and you think the college has missed something in your financial status or your student has something more to offer, you should definitely speak up to the financial aid office and ask for more money," she said.

About a FAFSA

One of the most widely misunderstood tools of the college financial aid process is the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form parents must fill out yearly. The basic premise of the FAFSA (and the CCS Profile, which some colleges also require) is we, as parents, bear the responsibility of paying for college, explains McDonald. So, we enter our income and expenses on the form, and it links to our income taxes and we think that final line called the EFC (Expected Family Contribution) will tell us what we should be paying for college.

Also See: FAFSA Season Is in Full Swing: Time Is of the Essence

"But, the college is using it at a tool to discern your financial stability to absorb the cost of college over time," McDonald said. "The EFC is only an estimate, and it's not a realistic amount of money for most families to pay for college out of their take home pay." .