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Thanks to the second year of earlier FAFSA availability (October 1 instead of January 1), some colleges are sending financial aid awards earlier than they used to. If you are the parent of a high school senior, maybe you have a few in hand already, and you want to “appeal” for more money.

First, what is a financial aid appeal? An appeal is an opportunity for you to explain some financial circumstances to the financial aid office—situations that you feel were not well represented on the FAFSA (or the CSS Profile, if the school required it).  An appeal is NOT a negotiation of a merit scholarship. Watch our blog for an upcoming entry with some tips about how to negotiate.

If you plan on appealing, you will need to write separately to each college your child is considering. You can send your letter via email to the financial aid office—most colleges will have a “contact us” button on the college’s financial aid office website.

Also review each college’s financial aid office website to see if they have a “special circumstance” form they want you to submit instead of just writing a letter. If they have one, it will outline some specific situations they will consider, and will also instruct you about the documentation that you’ll need to submit with the appeal. Not all colleges have a form like this, but it’s worth checking first to see if they do.

As you put your appeal together, keep these two things in mind:

The circumstances should be extenuating and significant.  While you should feel free to write to the college about any situation you feel is important, the appeal is more likely to be successful if what’s happening is beyond your control, not a result of choices you have made (good or bad).  Also, the impact on your finances needs to be significant enough to have an effect on the calculation of your expected family contribution.

These can be fine lines to draw sometimes, but here are some examples of situations that might result in more money:

  • A job loss
  • A one-time increase in income in the calendar year that was reported on the FAFSA
  • A change in income due to circumstances beyond your control (e.g., child support has ended)
  • Unusually high medical expenses (usually more than 5-10% of income)
  • Parent education debt still being repaid for the student’s siblings or the parents themselves
  • Unusually high debt due to medical bills or a long period of unemployment
  • Private school tuition for younger siblings (private schools are more likely than public universities to consider this)

And here are ones that probably won’t work:

  • High credit card debt for non-extenuating reasons
  • Sports and music fees for younger siblings
  • Unusually high charitable contributions
  • Education debt in the older siblings’ names
  • High mortgage debt
  • Your family’s unwillingness to borrow for college expenses
  • Early retirement by your choice, not your employer’s
  • One income in dual parent households

You will need to quantify and document the circumstance.  In order to make an adjustment to your award, the college will need to be able to quantify how much the situation is impacting your finances. They may also need to be able to justify a change in your award to an internal or federal auditor.  Therefore, when you submit your appeal, include specific numbers about how the circumstance is affecting you, and then document it.  Here are some examples:

  • For income changes, the college will need information about how your calendar-year (not school-year) income is fluctuating. For example, if your 2016 income was higher than 2017, present to them what your total 2017 income will be. For documentation, submit a copy of your 2017 taxes, or copies of year-end pay stubs.
  • If you’ve lost a job, include the letter from your employer.
  • If your medical expenses are high, calculate the annual calendar year amount, and if your expenses were high enough to itemize them on Schedule A, submit it as documentation. Otherwise, submit whatever summary information you have available.
  • If child support is ending, include a copy of the divorce decree and estimate what the impact on your calendar year will be.

Finally, as a former financial aid administrator, I can tell you, most of my colleagues have chosen their career because they want to help students. The funds they have to distribute are often limited, and their job is to award them in a fair and equitable way.  Keep this in mind as you craft your appeal. Consider the person you are writing to a partner, not an adversary, and you may come out better in the end.

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Written by Kathy Ruby
Kathy Ruby is a member of College Coach’s team of college finance experts. Before joining College Coach, Kathy was as a Senior Financial Aid Officer at St. Olaf College and Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.