financial aid

Have your financial aid packages left you overwhelmed by the cost of college? Maybe you have heard about appealing the financial aid offered, but aren’t sure if you should go for it. And if you do decide to ask for more money, where do you start? We have the answers to all your burning questions!

Wait, so what is a financial aid appeal?

A financial aid appeal is a process recognized by financial aid offices for families to request reconsideration of the need-based aid awarded. Need-based aid is the funding offered after filing the FAFSA and, in some cases, the CSS Profile. Essentially, this is a family’s opportunity to explain why the data on the FAFSA/CSS Profile has changed or is no longer reflective of your finances, or does not take something specific into consideration. The goal of this process is to ask for and (we hope!) be awarded more grant funding.

How do I know if my financial situation warrants an appeal?

The most successful financial aid appeals include special circumstances that fall into one of these three categories:

  1. Reduction of income
    The 2019-2020 FAFSA is based on your 2017 income. If your income has been reduced from then to now due to a job loss, reduction in hours, new employment, or child support ending soon then you should appeal! Keep reading to find out how.
  2. High non-discretionary expenses
    Financial aid officers are not sympathetic to consumer debt and typical living expenses. However, they may consider items like out of pocket medical expenses, education loan debt in a parent’s name for themselves or an older child, or expenses for the care of an elderly relative or special needs child. Sometimes colleges will take into account the cost of private high school for a younger child.
  3. Artificially inflated income
    This could be a one-time capital gain, a bonus that is not typical for you, or retirement distribution that will not happen again – at least not during another financial aid base year.

How should a family appeal?

Financial aid officers love documentation because they are audited each year and aim to be fair in their assessment of appeals. If you are appealing for medical expenses, gather copies of medical bills. If you experienced a recent job loss, get a copy of your most recent pay stub, termination notice, and your statement of unemployment benefits.

Put this together with a letter, explaining that there is a special circumstance that you’d appreciate if they could consider. It doesn’t hurt to mention how excited your child is to attend that college and how much you want to make this possible for him or her. I always wanted to help the families who made it clear that they really wanted to attend the college I worked for. But, on the other hand, I did not have patience for an excessively long letter. I wanted the facts and figures that I needed to see if there was anything I could do to change our need analysis, but I didn’t want to read a ton of fluff. Also, the winter/spring is a super busy and stressful time in the financial aid office, so it is best to be mindful of that.

If you are able to find out who your child’s assigned financial aid counselor is, then it is best to send an email with the appeal directly to the counselor. If not, then send the message to the general financial aid office email, but to the attention of your child’s counselor. If you don’t receive a confirmation of receipt within a week, then it is okay to follow up with a phone call. I always found it much easier to deny appeals if I had only communicated with someone by email, so making that human connection over the phone may help you. If you get a really quick response with a denial, but think you have a circumstance that should be considered, don’t give up right away and give the counselor a call. At minimum, they can help you understand why it was denied and if they might be able to reconsider in the future.

When should a family appeal?

Colleges tend to get tight on funds the longer you wait, so appeal as early as you can after the first financial aid award is released by mail or online. I do not recommend appealing before they process your initial package, because then you don’t know what the base offer would have been. If you happen to be denied any additional funding, it would not hurt to try one last time during the last week of April. Often times colleges may be completely out of funding by then, but if it happens to be a year where they are slightly behind on deposits (and maybe getting nervous that they will not fill their class the way they wanted to), then they may offer you a little extra funding to see if that will help you enroll. Do not pay the enrollment deposit before appealing; that costs you the leverage of the possibility of your child enrolling elsewhere.

Should the appeal come from a parent or the student?

Since appeals are generally based on parent financial information, I always preferred appeals come directly from a parent. Every once in a while I’d receive a follow up call or email from the student, which was nice and showed their interest in the process, and I appreciated that. But I always felt awkward speaking to a student about their parents’ finances, which they may not fully understand. It is 100% okay for the parent to take control of this one.

Are there any questions to ask the financial aid office after receiving positive appeal results?

Definitely ask if the extra funding is one-time or renewable! Find out in what situations will they renew the funds for future years. I do say this from experience – when I was at Babson College, there were times we would award a one-time grant and other times we would commit for all 4 years, so both situations are possibilities.

Good luck!

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Written by Michelle Clifton
Michelle Clifton is a college finance expert at College Coach. Before joining College Coach, she was a Senior Financial Aid Officer at Babson College and a Student Loan Officer at Rhode Island School of Design. Visit our website to learn more about Michelle Clifton.