Making a Financial Aid Appeal: What Families Need to Know
By Dean Tsouvalas | StudentAdvisor.com Editor-in-Chief
Congratulations! Your child has been accepted to their dream college! Now comes the tough part that causes many parents to lose sleep at night: figuring out how you can actually afford it. According to the US Department of Education, almost 80 percent of full-time undergraduates get some kind of aid. But what do you do when you realize that the college’s financial aid package is just not enough? Before ruling out your child’s top-choice school because of a disappointing financial aid package, take some time to decide if you should make a financial aid appeal.
Have you had a significant change in your family’s financial situation, such as being laid off from your job or incurring significant medical expenses, since filling out the FAFSA? Then it’s definitely worth getting in touch with the college to see if you’re eligible to receive additional financial aid.
Here are 8 smart strategies from financial aid experts to help you during the financial aid appeal:
1. Look closely at your financial aid award letter and break down the different types of aid.
Most people understand that having grants and scholarships in your financial aid package is better, since those types of financial aid are considered “gift” aid that does not have to be repaid. However, don’t be immediately put off by the word “loans” just because you were hoping to see grants and scholarships.
The student loans offered by the college through federal, state, or institutional funds have many more advantages, such as fixed interest rates and more flexible repayment options, than loans taken out from private lenders. Federal work-study is another type “self-help” financial aid option that shouldn’t be immediately dismissed. When your student is working part-time to help fund their education at their work-study job, they also end up building their resume. Kevin Walker, Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Simple Tuition, suggests, “When speaking with the financial aid office, remember school endowments are down, college costs are up, and students are applying for financial aid in record numbers. On one hand, financial aid administrators have been given limited funds to work with, and on the other hand, more families are asking for more support. The administrators are caught in between, and what makes it so difficult is that there is simply not enough money in the system to satisfy everyone.”
2. Still want to appeal your financial aid package to ask for more? Have a valid reason and documents to back it up.
For financial aid officers to consider your appeal, you’ll need to have proper documentation of your family’s financial state. “The first thing to do prepare for the appeal process is to make sure your [most recent] tax forms are filed and that the college has that updated information. Most colleges won't reconsider your financial aid package until the tax information is updated,” said Kendra Lider-Johnson, Manager of Integrated Communication and Education at the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority.
Kendra Lider Johnson
“Some of the more creative or thorough appeals I've seen in the past have been when families have forwarded copies of tax returns multiple earlier years; itemized monthly and annual reports from Quicken or other home cash flow software; copies of medical bills and letters from doctors with photos of medical or dental maladies; estimates from contractors with photos of natural disaster-related property damage; and award letters from other schools with the merit scholarships clearly highlighted,” she said.
Don’t forget to go back and double-check your FAFSA: “Review your FAFSA and any other financial aid application you may have completed. Look carefully for any mistakes you may have made or for anything that might not reveal the full picture of your family's situation,” said Kendra.
After you've reviewed all your important paperwork and prepared your evidence, it's time to start organizing your case for the appeal. Andrew Schrage, Editor of Money Crashers Personal Finance suggests, "The best way to prepare for the appeals process is to submit a written letter outlining the reasons for the appeal. Clearly state your case and include all necessary information and documentation as to why you think the award should be adjusted. Simply asking for more usually won’t cut it."
3. No matter what you hear, remember that a financial aid appeal IS NOT a negotiation.Financial aid officials across the country are preparing themselves for droves of disappointed parents. “Never forget that this process is unlike purchasing a car and negotiation may not be possible,” said Kenneth L. Howard, Higher Education Financial Services and Operations Manager for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, District of Columbia. When you’re trying to lower the price on a car, you can haggle and use subtle tactics to make a deal. This doesn’t quite work with the financial aid office.
Kenneth L. Howard
Kevin Walker explains, “By-in-large financial aid officers dislike the term ‘negotiating’ so avoid it during the conversations. They also tend to dislike when others propose solutions. Guide them to a solution by asking questions like ‘What options are available to fill the gap?’ rather than stating one up-front. People are often likely to make an extra effort when the solution is their idea.”
It’s crucial that families keep a positive and hopeful attitude when appealing financial aid. Some tactics that are helpful are comparing aid packages from other schools, consulting financial aid professionals regarding the merits of your appeal, and making sure to include factors that were not considered as part of the initial financial aid process.
4. Be genuine, but try to leave your emotions out of it.
Making up a sob story isn’t going to get a financial aid officer to cut you a break. Be honest and genuine about your financial circumstances. “It’s more about explaining a situation and letting them know that you are just a person in a difficult situation,” said Gregg Cohen, president of Campus Bound. Share a better financial aid offer that you received from a competitive school. But remember to be polite and do not make threats about going elsewhere.
5. Search for outside financial resources.
Don’t put all your eggs in one financial aid appeal. Make sure you and your child are actively applying for outside loans and private scholarships. Jeanette Kucera, Associate Director of Counseling in the Office of Academic Scholarships and Financial Aid at Baylor University, advises that, “students need to take advantage of any scholarship opportunities available to them through the department of their academic major. Baylor provides a Departmental Scholarship search tool on our website to help students determine if their department offers scholarships and to advise students of the requirements and application process for those scholarships.”
6. Supplement your appeal with evidence that you are an exceptional student.
After receiving your financial aid offer, were there are any dramatic positive changes in your student’s academic record? Did he win an award, have huge improvements in grades, or did her team go to the state finals? Make sure you let the college know about it! “Since colleges are looking for students that stand out in the crowd, your improved record may tip the scales in your favor,” said Maura Kastberg, Executive Director of Student Services at RSC: Your College Prep Expert.
It’s important to be aware that when acceptances start coming in, a lot of students have a tendency to lose focus on their high school course work. This could actually jeopardize your chances for getting additional financial aid. Jieun Choe, executive director of college admissions and K-12 programs at Kaplan Test Prep explains, “College financial aid officers may actually ask you for an updated transcript since you first applied in order to help them in the reevaluation process, so this is a key reason why you should never let senioritis set in.”
7. Leverage your diversity within the applicant pool.
Colleges offer financial aid awards strategically. They want to create a campus that has diversity in geography, gender, ethnicity, and areas of study. “Your child’s first choice college may be in your back yard,” said Tom Dalton, Excelsior College Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management, “but that college may want geographic diversification. So, they may award more grant money to an academically equal student from another state. The same goes for academic major. Your number one college may have several thousand applicants for their business school and have just 300 spaces available. But, the school of health sciences only has 400 applicants for 175 spots so the aid office is more aggressive with their aid packages so the college meets enrollment goals.”
Realize what your child will be competing against and highlight their qualities that will bring diversity to the school.
8. Think about your future before finally deciding on a college.
Do you anticipate your financial situation changing drastically over the four years your child is in college? Will the price tag of an expensive school be a burden no matter what? “Families should do a careful analysis of the benefit of going to a more expensive college before making the final decision,” said Gregg Cohen. “Students should be part of this discussion. By evaluating the difference on both the short and long-term financial impact and the educational and life opportunity, you will be making an informed decision.”