Everything You Need to Know About Financial Aid Appeals

Facebook Live with Brenda Piazza of College Assistance Plus.

What do you do if the financial aid a college offers your student is not enough to attend that college?

Do you have any recourse, or will your student be forced to reject the offer of admission or take out student loans to cover the difference?

Fortunately, there are options available to appeal the award and request additional funding.

 

What Does Financial Aid Appeal Mean?

Like houses and cars, college tuition prices are negotiable.

You don’t purchase a home without negotiating the final purchase price; you don’t enter a car dealership expecting to pay the sticker price. The same is true for colleges.

In fact, one-fifth of private colleges are willing to offer a tuition discount, and if done properly, you might be able to receive a discount at public universities as well.

There are two types of financial aid awarded to your student: need-based aid and merit-based aid. In order to appeal either form of aid, you must have a solid reason to ask for more money.

To appeal need-based aid, colleges need to understand your financial situation beyond what they saw on the FAFSA.

To appeal merit-based aid, your student should offer the college a reason to increase their merit award based on other award offers or a stellar academic performance.

 

How Can I Negotiate More Financial Aid?    

It’s important to understand how colleges award financial aid.

Financial aid officers review a student’s SAR (Student Aid Report) to determine a family’s EFC (Expected Family Contribution) based on the information provided on the FAFSA. The officers then award aid using their own unique process.

The first step to appealing your financial aid package is to determine whether or not you are appealing need-based funding or merit-based funding.

If you make the decision to appeal, the person who is most knowledgeable about the circumstances and need for the appeal should be the one to handle it.

For instance, if the appeal is merit-based on other scholarship awards and offers, the student can pen the letter.

However, if the situation is a financial one based on the family’s ability to pay, the parent would be more equipped to explain the need for additional aid.

If you are appealing a merit-based aid decision, contact the admissions office. If the appeal is regarding a need-based award, contact the financial aid office.

 

Secrets to Appealing Financial Aid

Remember these three “secrets” to appealing financial aid:

  1. Ignore the Cost Of Attendance (COA) – the number listed by every school as the “all-in” cost. You will NOT pay this price (if this was not true then every kid would pay the same price…it’s not like Starbucks who charges everyone the same for a cup of coffee)
  2. A college will virtually always “lowball” a student. They wait to see if your family will accept all the government money (loans) that are offered in the financial aid award letter. Why should the college put their money on the table first when the government will just literally hand it out to anybody? 
  3. You can APPEAL their “low” financial aid offer.

It’s amazing how effective this works.

According to one college funding professional, “It’s like online dating; you can’t put all your eggs in one “swipe to the right.” ”

If you’ve properly selected schools which would likely want your student, and then asked them to reconsider their financial offer because your student is very interested in attending, at least one of the colleges will “swipe right” on your student too…and the only thing they can offer is more money.

[Get more tips on financial aid appeals.]

 

Comparing Financial Aid Offers

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could compare your student’s financial aid offer against what other students were offered at the same school?

To help families do just this, we crowdsource financial aid and merit scholarship offers in our Compare College Offers tool.

Families can submit all their students offers and compare the net cost of each school.  Then, families can see offers from other students at the same school.

By comparing student profiles with similar characteristics, like GPA, test scores, and family EFC range, families can decide whether the offer they received is fair or not.

Compare College Offers

 

Tips on Appealing Financial Aid

If You Do Appeal, Does it Matter When You File the Appeal?

Jodi Okun of College Financial Aid Advisors, in an interview with Road2College, reminds parents that colleges are swamped during certain times of the year, especially when dealing with admissions notifications.

She recommends if you are “itching” to appeal, you should carefully plot your strategy, pen the letter, and wait. Review the award, compare it to others, and determine which college is the best financial fit.

Don’t forget the decision deadline is May 1 and once you accept admission, a positive appeal decision will be less likely. Before you make the final decision, make an appeal.

Appealing FAFSA

The most obvious reason to appeal the FAFSA is a change in your family circumstances or financial situation.

Financial aid will evaluate your special circumstances and make a determination based on the additional information you provide. Following are some good reasons to appeal:

  • Substantial income change—Your family’s income has changed due to divorce, loss of job, medical emergency or any other factor contributing to a loss of income.
  • Divorce—A divorce can have an impact on the amount of the financial aid. Changes in household income, alimony and child support payments should be considered. In addition, living arrangements regarding the custodial parent, stepparents and possibly step-siblings can factor into the equation.
  • An usual financial event—A one-time inflow of income can certainly affect the financial aid award. This might include a salary bonus, family inheritance, stock sale, property sale like a home that netted a substantial gain. This one-time event can distort the picture of the family’s overall finances.
  • Caring for a family member—Your family is responsible for the long-term care of an aged or disabled member and it will cause a monetary drain on the family and increase living expenses.
  • Natural disaster—If a natural disaster happened to your family (hurricane, tornado, flood, fire), it will impact your ability to pay for college and could merit an additional amount of financial aid.
  • Illness or disability—A recent illness or disability within the family will not appear on a FAFSA form. The financial aid office needs to know about these added expenses to possibly adjust the amount of aid they offer your student.
  • Increase in childcare expenses—If a parent returns to work and needs to provide childcare for their children, this might be a reason to make an appeal for more aid.
  • Family education costs—It matters how many students are in college, but it also matters if members of the family attend a private elementary or secondary school. If a parent returns to college or is repaying substantial student loans, it may be cause for appeal.
  • Death or incarceration—If one or more of the parents have passed on or been incarcerated since the FAFSA was completed, the financial aid office should be informed about the loss of income.

Appealing Merit Scholarships

Whether a college will sweeten your merit aid depends on how much the institution wants you as a student.

Another reason a college might offer more aid is how the college’s freshman deposits are faring. If less students than they expected are accepting offers of admission, the college will be more likely to increase its merit aid offer.

If you make the decision to ask for more merit aid, provide the college with information to support your request.

You should consider appealing a merit award for two reasons: there has been a change that might affect the award; other colleges have offered more money and made themselves more affordable.

  • Have your test scores improved since you applied for admission?
  • Have you received any noteworthy awards or accolades worth mentioning?
  • Did your GPA improve since submitting your application?

Your goal is to give the college a reason to increase your merit award.

If you have other awards from other colleges that are better than the college you are appealing to, provide them with a copy of the award.

Colleges are concerned about competitors and if you are at the top of their applicant pool and the college wants you to accept their offer, they will be more inclined to offer more money.

Be sure to explain that this is your top school and more money will guarantee you accept their offer of admission.

“At many schools, it’s a buyer’s market,” explains Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution,” a book aimed at helping students find the right school at the right price. “You’re going to be more likely to succeed [in getting more financial aid] if you’re looking at a private school than at a public school. They’re more eager to fill their spots.”

 

How to Write a Financial Aid Appeal Letter

Every letter will be different because every family’s circumstances are different. Avoid using a form letter and strive to make it personal. Follow these simple guidelines:

  • First, answer these questions—What special forms and procedures do I need to follow when I appeal? What are the relevant dates needed to process my appeal efficiently? What documentation needs to be provided to the office of financial aid?
  • Use proper grammar and mechanics—Get the format and names right. Your letter should be professionally written. Proofread for mistakes and double check spelling. Use an accommodating tone and do not come across as a negotiator, even though you are acting as one. Do not make demands and remain humble.
  • State your reason for appeal clearly—Be succinct and formal. Make it clear from the very beginning why you are asking for an appeal. Include relevant information only; do not ramble.
  • Provide specifics—The letter should include dates and amounts of money, about the changes in your financial circumstances that will affect your ability to meet your EFC. For example, “My income has decreased by $5000 since the tax return I used to complete the FAFSA”. Or, “My father was diagnosed with cancer last month and will be having treatment and unable to work and provide for our family”. Avoid being vague and strive to provide exact figures when possible.
  •  Provide additional documentation if warranted—If you need a physician, clergy, lawyer or health professional to advocate for you, provide contact information in case there are related questions. It’s wise to include signed, formal documentation if possible.
  • If applying for more merit aid, include any competing offers, if you have them—Ask the school to match it and explain how this will affect your admission decision.
  • Ask for clarification—Ask what the next stages are in the appeal process.
  • Don’t forget to say “thank you.”—Open and close with gratitude. Thank the office for the financial aid you already received and for considering your appeal.
[Check out sample financial aid letters shared by members of our Paying For College 101 group.]

 

Some colleges use a Special Circumstances Form.

The Special Circumstances Form asks for the reason why you feel what you listed on the FAFSA or CSS Profile doesn’t represent your full financial situation.

It is available from the financial aid office.

The form asks simple questions to add to the financial picture derived from the FAFSA.

These details might include an income change, a new child, a sibling of the student who wasn’t going to go to college and since has enrolled, caregiving costs for an elderly or disabled family member, unforeseen medical expenses and more.

You will list your reason in a few sentences and return it to the college. It’s a simple appeal that will be accepted or denied based on what is stated on the form.

Some forms don’t have you write anything at all but simply fill in bubbles next to the reason or reasons you are requesting the appeal.

 

Appealing Financial Aid During the Coronavirus Pandemic

As if appealing a financial aid offer wasn’t “taxing” enough, having to deal with it during the coronavirus pandemic surely throws a wrench in the process. 

There are ways to go about this, however. 

 

How to Win a Financial Aid Appeal

Don’t be afraid to ask for more money.

The college will not rescind their offer of admission. Their answer may be “no”, but it won’t be yes if you don’t ask.

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by asking.

If you have explained your reasons clearly and followed the proper protocol, the odds are in your favor.

If your special circumstances presented a clear reason for requesting more need-based aid, you can be reasonably certain the college will find you some.

If you’re requesting more merit aid, be realistic. There’s a reason the school awarded you what they did, and while they may have a bit of wiggle room, don’t expect them to open up their coffers and offer an avalanche of money.

But a few thousand dollars can make a difference in your ability to avoid loans.

The reason colleges offer merit aid is to attract students to their institution. The more selective a college is, the less likely they are to have to increase awards to fill their class; students are stacked up on the wait list.

If you are a stellar student at the top of their applicant pool, they might be more inclined to offer you additional aid.

Bottom line: If you need more money in your financial aid package and you meet the criteria, ask; but ask properly and ask politely.

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Suzanne Shaffer

Suzanne Shaffer

Suzanne Shaffer counsels parents and students in the college admissions process and the importance of early college preparation. Her Parenting for College blog offers timely college tips for parents and students, as well as providing parents with the resources necessary to help their college-bound teens navigate the college maze.
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