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Finances

How to Appeal a Financial Aid Award

Suzanne Shaffer


This was my story: A teenage daughter with her heart set on attending an expensive private college. A mother who knew the financial aid award would need to be substantial for it to work. Waiting for an offer of admission only to find out that, though she was accepted, the aid package was insufficient and the college was simply not affordable.

We were headed for a tough conversation.

This same scene may be playing out in your home today. As a parent, you know the financial realities of paying for college. Your student, on the other hand, is thinking with their heart.

If you aren’t happy about your financial aid award package, what can you do? Fortunately, you do have options. Your student may choose to accept an offer from another college with suitable financial aid — as we did. Or you can ask the college for more financial aid.

If you choose the second option, here’s what you need to know and do before you proceed.

Compare Award Offers

You can compare your student’s financial aid offer with other student offers at the same school. To help families do this, Road2College has crowdsourced financial aid and merit scholarship offers using their Compare College Offers tool.

Families submit all their student offers and compare the net cost of each school. Then, you can see offers from other students at the same school and compare your student with other students who share similar characteristics like GPA, test scores, and family EFC range. This can help you determine if the offer your student received is comparable to the offers to other students.

Another option is to look at the percentage of admitted students receiving financial aid at a particular college and the amount of the average award using a college data source like College Data or College Navigator.

What is a Financial Aid Appeal?

Just like any other large consumer purchase, college tuition prices are negotiable. The sticker price you see is very rarely the price you pay. Data collected by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) revealed that colleges discounted tuition for the 2018–19 school year by over 50 percent. This year, because of the pandemic, you can anticipate that many (but not all) colleges will be even more flexible in order to lure students due to low application numbers based on the fact that families are struggling financially.

When you appeal your financial aid award, you are simply asking for more money. Don’t be afraid to do this; the college will not be offended or react by rescinding their offer of admission. They may say no, but it does not hurt to ask. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by appealing your award.

What Should You Appeal?

There are two types of financial aid awards you can appeal: need-based aid and merit-based aid. You must, however, have a good reason to appeal.

You might appeal need-based aid if your financial situation has changed since completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) or if there is something you need to clarify beyond what the school saw on the FAFSA.

To appeal merit-based aid, your student should have a reason to increase the aid such as other higher award offers from other schools or an improved academic performance.

Merit-Based Aid

There are some reasons to appeal merit-based aid. If the college is keen to attract your student, they may sweeten the deal by providing more aid if you ask. Depending on how their freshmen deposits are looking (fewer students than expected accepting admission offers), the college may be inclined to increase merit aid to attract more students. Make this appeal through the admissions office.

If your student decides to appeal merit aid, you should provide the college with information to support the request:

  • Other colleges have offered you more money and are more affordable. Use these offers for leverage by asking your first-choice college to at least match the award, thus assuring you will accept their offer of admission.
  • Your student's test scores have significantly improved since they applied, making them eligible for more merit aid.
  • Your student's GPA has improved since applying and might give the college a reason to increase their aid.

“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.”

Need-Based Aid

Based on the information you provided on the FAFSA, the college has evaluated your ability to pay. Appeal your student's need-based award if there has been a change in your family circumstances or your family’s finances. The financial aid office will evaluate your situation and make a determination based on the information you provide.

Some reasons to appeal may include these changes in a family’s ability to pay for college:

  • Loss of income due to job loss or another factor
  • Divorce
  • A one-time infusion of income such as a salary bonus or inheritance inflated your income in a prior year
  • Long-term care of a family member
  • Natural disaster
  • Illness or disability
  • Increase in childcare expenses due to parent returning to work
  • Family education costs such as private elementary or secondary school tuition or a parent returning to college
  • Death or incarceration of a parent causing a loss of income

Examine your student’s academic situation as it relates to merit aid and your family’s financial situation as it relates to need-based aid. Determine whether an appeal might increase your financial aid award amount.

How Should You Appeal?

Write a financial aid appeal letter either to the admissions office or the financial aid office. Since every family’s circumstances are different, every letter will be different and should be personally crafted. You can, however, follow these simple guidelines:

  • Gather all documentation necessary to make your case.
  • Use proper grammar and mechanics.
  • Do not make demands and remain humble.
  • State your reason for appeal clearly.
  • Be specific including dates, figures and amounts.
  • Provide documentation along with the letter to substantiate your appeal.
  • Open and close with gratitude.

Some colleges use a Special Circumstances Form for financial aid appeals. The form asks questions to add to the financial picture derived from the FAFSA. You simply list your reason in a few sentences or even just fill in bubbles and submit it to the financial aid office. Based on the information provided on this form, the college may adjust your student's award.

The College Essay Guy provides examples of financial aid appeal letters in "How to Write a Financial Aid Appeal Letter" >

When Should You Appeal?

Once you compare your student's financial aid awards and determine you are eligible to appeal, craft your letter to the college or colleges. Just remember that May 1 is the decision deadline and once you accept admission, positive appeal decision will be less likely.

How Can You Win an Appeal?

If you presented a clear reason for requesting more need-based aid, the odds are in your favor that the college will find some money to supplement your award. If you are requesting more merit aid, don’t expect an avalanche of money. A few thousand dollars, however, can make the difference between having to take out substantial student loans or being able to attend with minimal debt.

The more selective a college is, the less likely they will be to offer more merit aid. If your student is at the top of the applicant pool and a stellar student, the college may be more likely to offer additional aid.

Will the Pandemic Impact Financial Aid Appeals?

Due to the pandemic, many colleges and universities are facing enrollment uncertainty and a risk to their revenue streams. They will be more likely to grant appeals to attract more students. For parents, financial circumstances may have changed due to job loss or national shutdowns and warrant additional aid based on financial need.

The U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to college financial aid administrators, allowing them to use professional judgement “when students and/or their families have been affected by COVID-19.” The coronavirus will not change financial aid appeal procedures, however.

Mark Kantrowitz, Publisher and VP of Research for Savingforcollege.com, in an article for Forbes outlined some examples of special circumstances related to COVID-19 that might justify an adjustment:

  • The student or parent’s employer closes for a period of time, laying off or furloughing staff
  • Death or illness of a parent or other wage-earner
  • Lost wages due to illness, a quarantine period or shelter-in-place order
  • Inability to work because of illness (e.g., impaired lung function prevents a parent from engaging in substantial gainful activity)

Current college students are also eligible to appeal their financial aid. Due to the financial impact of the pandemic, they may need additional financial aid to attend college.

If you need more money in your financial aid package and you meet the criteria, initiate an appeal and ask. But ask properly and politely.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been highlighted on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College and TeenLife online and she has written for Smart College Visit, College Focus, Noodle Education and Road2College. Her articles have also been featured in print in TeenLife, UniversityParent and CollegiateParent publications.

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