There are two factors which determine your percentage of eRate discounts: whether your school or library is considered urban or rural, and what its perceived level of economic need is. The first factor has already been decided for you using statistics from the Office of Management and Budget; but the second factor is where, with a little savvy, you can score big gains in funding.

For purposes of the eRate, “perceived level of economic need” is measured by the percentage of your students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Note that the rules use the word “eligible”—so you don’t have to calculate your discount according to the percentage of your students who actually participate in the reduced-lunch program.

Greg Weisiger, eRate consultant for the Virginia Department of Education, believes many schools and districts made this mistake when they applied last year. As a result, Weisiger said, discount levels for many schools—paricularly high schools—were most likely underreported.

“Just looking at the applications from the state of Virginia, we noticed a slight, but consistent, drop-off between the discount levels requested by elementary and middle schools and those requested by high schools from the same district,” Weisiger noted.

Participation in the reduced-price lunch program generally drops from middle to high school, Weisiger said. One reason is the stigma that students attach to the program as they get older; high-school students generally don’t want to be seen as different or deserving of special treatment.

To ensure you’re calculating your discount based on the percentage of students who actually are eligible for the program, Weisiger recommends that you check for students who have siblings in lower grades who participate in the program. If the siblings share the same household, the older siblings are eligible for reduced lunches as well.