Understanding the Financial Aid Appeal Process
What Is a Financial Aid Appeal?
Second only to the all-important college decision letter is the financial aid award letter.
For most families, this award letter dictates whether they will be able to afford the cost of college.
It’s critical that families know their options once they receive their award letters, so it is best to be prepared with information about their finances even before the letter arrives in case financial aid appeals will need to be drafted.
What You Need to Know About the Award Letter
A financial aid award letter will arrive either with the offer of admission or shortly after your student receives their offer. Within the award letter you will find the cost of attending the college, what you will be expected to pay or the EFC (Expected Family Contribution) and any financial assistance the college is offering to bridge the gap between what you are expected to pay and the cost of attendance.
But lurking within the award letter can often be some practices colleges use when filling their admission quotas. Colleges use their practices to lure students into accepting their offer of admission or discourage those students who were only offered admission to fill their quota or inflate their numbers from deciding to attend.
Front loading happens when a college makes a generous financial aid award upon acceptance. When the student returns the following year, they will find the college has dropped their previously award grants and scholarships. That’s why it’s crucial that you ask these questions before accepting an award:
- Is the grant or scholarships renewable? What your student needs is for the money to follow him through college until graduation. Find out the maximum number of years the award will be renewable.
- Are there terms attached to the grant or scholarship? Your student may have to maintain a certain grade point average or maintain a certain number of credit hours. Inquire about the eligible requirements each year and if your student must complete additional paperwork in order to keep the award.
- If the grant or scholarship is lost, what will replace it? Colleges will most likely offer student loans as a substitution plan. But in order to avoid additional debt, inquire about other grants or scholarships that might be available and ask about the application process. Your student should also plan to search for outside scholarships throughout college to supplement any awards that are lost.
- Will the college bill increase in future years and if so, by how much? If tuition and/or room and board increases, the renewable awards may no longer cover the increased costs. Ask if there is an increase, will the awards increase as well. This is important to know as you are planning for future cost increases.
Gapping is a term used in reference to financial aid awards. It refers to the gap between what you can afford to pay (your EFC) and what colleges offer in financial aid. If there is a difference, it creates a financial gap. When a college makes an offer of admission and does not solidify it with enough aid to cover the difference between the cost of college attendance and your expected family contribution, this is known as gapping.
Colleges use this tactic to differentiate between the good applicants and the average applicants. For instance, if your student is not at the top of the applicant pool, he may be offered admission but will not be offered enough aid or gapped in the hopes he will not accept the offer of admission.
This happens because colleges offer admission to more students than they can possibly afford to accommodate. If a family cannot afford to pay the additional money required to attend, the student will most likely decline an offer of admission and move on to another college.
Colleges will often pad the EFC amount with federal student loans, federal parent loans and a work-study award. These loans should never be considered when determining if a college is gapping your student. All students qualify for federal student loans.
College aid should only be in the form of merit scholarships or grants. If loans are considered in the financial aid package, the college is gapping your student.
If a college is using any of these tactics with your student, you should carefully compare other awards from other colleges who are offering admission.
How Do You Compare Financial Aid Awards?
Before accepting any college’s offer of admission, you should carefully compare, analyze and question each item on the financial aid award letters from each college. As a parent, you understand the financial realities of paying for a college education.
Your student, on the other hand, may want to attend a college that will mean incurring a substantial amount of debt. For this reason, you should carefully compare all awards side by side and determine which is the best financial fit for your family.
Using the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet will help you evaluate the awards. Many colleges either use the government form or have adapted it to their own information. Using this sheet makes it simple to evaluate the awards and see easily if the award is sufficient to meet your financial needs. If the college does not provide this, you can easily print a copy and transfer the information from the letter to the form.
You should be able to easily find the scholarships, grants, student loans and the overall costs from each college. The college’s full cost of attendance should be clearly stated on the award letter. To determine whether this amount is accurate or if it’s deleted from the award, you can visit the College Board’s site BigFuture. Just type in the name of the college and the search provides the pertinent information.
Once you have compared all the financial aid information, you will be able to determine how much you and your student are going to have to pay out of your own pockets to attend the college. If each college offers comparable awards, the decision will be easy.
But if one college offers more aid than the other, your student might choose this college. In many families, however, the decision is not that simple. If a student’s dream college does not offer enough aid and his heart is set on attending, what are your options, and can you appeal an award?
When Can You Appeal An Award?
Anyone can appeal a financial aid award and ask for more aid. But in certain instances, an appeal is certainly warranted. You can appeal the amount of your award based on special circumstances or unusual circumstances. This would be a need-based appeal.
According to StudentAid.gov, unusual circumstances might include:
- Tuition expenses at an elementary or secondary school.
- Unusual medical or dental expenses not covered by insurance.
- A family member who recently became unemployed.
- Changes in income or assets that may affect your eligibility for financial aid.
- Death in the family
- Caring for an elderly family member
- Extenuating circumstances (a situation that is unique to your own family that you could not articulate on the FAFSA or CSS Profile)
StudentAid.gov also explains special circumstances that might affect a student’s dependency status and also affect their financial aid:
- You are unable to provide parental information.
- You are homeless or at risk of being homeless.
- You are seeking an unsubsidized loan only.
In order to be considered for all types of federal student financial aid, under federal law, your student must provide parental information on the FAFSA unless he meets one of the criteria for being an “independent” student. This is true even if he doesn’t live with his parent, his parent is not paying any of his college expenses, or his parent does not claim him as a dependent on their taxes. The financial aid administrator will determine if the student qualifies based on the information provided.
With any appeal for any of these circumstances, parents and students must submit documented information and proof for the financial aid office to consider an appeal.
What Other Instances Warrant An Appeal?
You can appeal a merit-based award if your student’s grades have significantly improved since submitting the FAFSA which might warrant more aid based on his academic achievement. If your student has evidence of academic achievements or improved grades on his transcript, appealing the award might gain him additional aid. Offer proof when submitting your appeal.
In addition, if your student receives more financial aid from a competing college, he can leverage that award to ask for additional merit aid to match that of the other college. Your student would make the case by promising to attend the college if they match the offer from the competing college. Of course, you must provide proof of the award from the other college.
How should you appeal an award?
A need-based award appeal should be made with the Financial Aid Office of the college your student will be attending. If it’s a merit-based award appeal, your student should contact the Admissions Office.
Your student should call to verify contact information and submit a written appeal request. You should never do this over the telephone. The letter should be no more than a page and you or your student (depending on who can provide the best information) should clearly outline the details without turning it into a sob story or a demand.
According to Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price and college blogger at The College Solution, “Whether a student will have success appealing an award can also depend on whether a school’s admission office is nervous about meeting its freshman enrollment target. Some schools will eagerly give a student an additional award to ensure filling a freshman slot regardless of the merits of the appeal. In fact, in some cases, students don’t even need to ask.”
If colleges are behind in receiving freshmen deposits, they may also create additional scholarships in the spring to entice accepted students and can also use these scholarships to increase merit aid for a student who asks for more aid.
What are the components of an appeal letter?
The letter should open thanking the college for its offer of admission and its financial award. Then move to the reason for the letter: regret that the award is not substantial enough to attend their college. Outline the reasons why you will need additional funds but be polite and never make demands or attempt to negotiate. Be courteous in the tone of the letter. Finally, along with the letter, submit any documentation to support your claims.
If you need some samples of appeal letters, you can view some here: Sample Financial Appeal Letter.
In conclusion, financial aid awards are an important part of the final college decision. Evaluating each award and comparing side by side will help you and your student make a wise financial decision.
If you and your student feel you need more aid in order to accept an offer of admission, follow these guidelines to evaluate whether to ask and how to ask. Remember to follow up after sending the appeal letter and thank the college for their consideration.
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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.