Your high school senior is beginning to receive award letters from the colleges to which they’ve been accepted. And you're starting to think: “Wow. The bottom line looks a lot higher than we thought.”
You’re not alone. Very often a family’s expected family contribution (EFC) is more than they had anticipated. This isn’t the time to panic. It’s time to appeal.
Remember that a college’s first offer is not usually its final or best offer. As an appeals specialist for My College Planning Team, I work with a lot of families in your situation. Here are some of my tips for successfully appealing your child’s financial aid offer.
Always appeal. An appeal won’t hurt you or your student, and some colleges will award an additional $1,000 just for trying. Every college has its own appeal process; check the website. You might have to submit a letter or a form, or call and speak to a financial aid counselor.
Do not make a tuition deposit until your appeal has been resolved. By making a deposit, you’re accepting the college’s terms.
Review your student’s FAFSA for errors and updates. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is what the colleges use to calculate need-based aid. I find errors in nine out of every 10 FAFSAs I review. For example, sometimes an IRA rollover is classified as income by the FAFSA, which can inflate your income and reduce aid. If the income reported on the FAFSA (2020 for the 2022–23 academic year) was unusually high, get your 2021 return done as soon as possible to show the difference. This is where consulting an appeals expert may be helpful.
Compare the EFC in the award letter to the college’s own Net Price Calculator. If the two are way off, contact the student financial services office and ask them to walk you through their decision.
Upload your student’s award letter into TuitionFit, an online database of award letters. It will let you compare your student’s award to those of other students going to the same school. Your child’s offer may well be in line with other offers, but you don’t know until you look. Small, private liberal arts colleges typically are better at offering tuition discounts. The big state flagships, not so much.
Gather documentation if you plan to appeal need-based aid because of changes in circumstances. Let’s say a parent lost their job after the FAFSA was filed. Have a copy of the notice of termination. If the family experienced higher-than-normal medical expenses, a spreadsheet and an explanation of the impact on the family’s finances is a good place to start. (“We had to take $50,000 out of college savings to cover a family member’s cancer treatment.”)
Update the college on your student’s high school performance. A higher GPA that puts your student into the top 20 percent of the entering class at their college might qualify for more merit aid. Did they win a scholarship, or an award?
Instead of simply asking for more money, have a dollar figure in mind. What EFC are you trying to get to?
Hold off on your appeal to the student’s first-choice college for a while. This lets you do a couple of things. First, appeal the awards at your student’s second-, third- and even fourth-choice schools, because one of your most powerful tools is a better offer from a comparable college. Also, a school might be more open to an appeal in late March or April, when they begin to see how many first-year students are actually accepting their offers. Admissions offices have to hit their numbers, too.
Draft a polite, one-page appeal letter with as many hard numbers as possible and ask (politely) for reconsideration. Don’t be pushy or sound entitled. And we never use the word “negotiate.” Appeal letters usually come from a parent if there’s a lost job, illness or other financial upheaval. But if the appeal is based on a better high school GPA or an award, the student can sign the letter.
Be willing to walk away. If the college knows your student is coming no matter what, why would they offer you a better deal? So, demonstrate interest but not too much. Here’s an example: “Your school is definitely their first choice, but we have a few other offers more in line with our budget. Is there anybody we could talk to about coming down on the net price a little bit?”
The sooner you get started on the appeals process the better. But then exercise patience and accept that the college is going to need time to make the final decision. It all boils down to two factors: how much they want your student and how desperate they are to fill their seats.
The cost of college is four years or longer. Your goal is to win a renewable merit award based on your student maintaining a certain GPA and full-time status. Appeals aren’t always successful —- my success rate for my clients is a little more than 50 percent. But by using these tips, you can increase your chances of success right from the start.
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Billie Jo Weis is a client services advisor for My College Planning Team in the Chicago area, where she creates customized college funding plans to help parents pay for higher education, monitoring each client’s progress until all of their children are out of college. Billie Jo received her BA in accounting from San Jose State University and has over 20 years of experience in accounting and finance.