Over the next few weeks, high school seniors will receive their financial aid offers from prospective colleges. For some, the offers will be sufficient and allow them to make a final decision on where they will attend college this fall, but not everyone will be that lucky. Many students may find that their financial aid package leaves a significant gap between what the college has offered and how much it costs to attend. This can cause quite a bit of stress for families and students, especially for those who haven’t set aside adequate college savings to help bridge the gap. But before students start to panic, they should remember that their financial aid packages are offers at this point and not set in stone. In certain situations, they may be able to appeal and ask for additional funding.
First, students should take some time to review their FAFSA and CSS PROFILE® (some school requires the PROFILE in addition to the FAFSA) to ensure there aren’t any errors or omissions. If they do find a problem, they will need to amend their forms. This is not done through the college; students must log back into their accounts to make the corrections and request that the amended forms be sent to the colleges on their list. Once colleges receive this information, most will review their offers and make changes where needed. If, however, there has been a change in employment or other circumstances not covered on the FAFSA or CSS PROFILE®, students must ask their college for reconsideration and file a financial aid appeal letter. Financial aid offices are likely to reconsider an offer if students have experienced any of the following:
- Death of a parent
- Serious illness or disability in the family
- Parents have divorced or separated
- Birth of a child
- Loss of employment
- Sibling has enrolled in college
Of course, students cannot simply ask for more money; there are proper steps that must be taken before an offer can be increased. Students should first contact the financial aid office at their colleges and ask for the staff member in charge of the appeals process. This person will be able to provide them with the appropriate forms and notify them of any upcoming deadlines that must be met. Any and all questions during the appeals process should be directed to this person, and students should keep a record of all communications. Students should be prepared to document their circumstances and provide proof of why they need an increase in aid. This may include tax forms, hospital bills, letters from physicians, death certificates, and other evidence to support their claims. It’s important that students submit these upon request or their appeal may be denied. In addition, students should never use phrases like, ‘I need more money’ or ‘my family can’t afford to pay’ when drafting their appeal letters. Those who include specific reasons why they are asking for additional funding, and the exact amount being requested, are more likely to have the financial aid office respond in a positive manner. Overall, circumstances beyond a family’s control are the only grounds on which an appeal should be based. If your family used funds that could have been allocated to education for some other purpose such as buying a car or home, those purchases would not be considered extenuating circumstances.
If there haven’t been any significant changes in income or other circumstances that would qualify for a financial aid appeal, students can still ask a college to review its Cost of Attendance (COA) calculation. For example, some students may have higher transportation expenses, especially if they live hundreds of miles from their schools. Others may need to purchase equipment or supplies for their degree program that may have been overlooked. If the COA increases, it may allow the financial aid office to increase its offer, as well. Even if the offer doesn’t increase, it provides room for additional financing if the student has remaining Direct Loan eligibility, intends to borrow a private student loan or if the parent is considering a Direct PLUS Loan. Some students may try to negotiate a higher package by using another school’s offer as leverage, but this approach should be used with caution. If a student chooses this route, it would be in their best interest to put the request in the context of not wishing to choose a less desirable alternative based solely on cost.
Students need to be realistic in their expectations and have a back-up plan, just in case the college is unable to provide additional funding. They should make an effort to look into other financial resources, such as scholarships and private loans, to help finance their education, and they may also need to consider other colleges that are less expensive. Above all else, students should remain respectful and courteous when going through the appeal process, keeping in mind that financial aid officers are there to help and are not in the business of hiding money from students.