Between now and May 1, many incoming college freshmen and their families will be grappling with choosing which college to attend, and financial aid could play a crucial role in that decision.

Even families whose completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has yielded an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) close or above the total cost for the institution of choice may be able to negotiate for some aid, though the odds are low unless their financial circumstances have changed.

“It is worthwhile to appeal for more financial aid if the financial offer is unreasonable based on your financial circumstances … does not consider your special circumstances or there’s been a change in your financial circumstances,” writes Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com and author of the new book, How to Appeal for More College FInancial Aid.

Since the FAFSA, which is the basis for college financial aid, is now based on tax returns that are at least two years old — the 2019–20 FAFSA form reports on 2017 income information — it is very possible that a family’s financial circumstances have changed. Failure to file the FAFSA, however, will preclude receiving any financial aid.

Another reason to appeal a financial aid offer, according to Kantrowitz, is when there is a big difference in the net costs for two or more colleges because of the size of financial aid reward.

Even though the financial aid process is formulaic, based primarily on the FAFSA’s EFC, and that most college financial aid administrators use a similar process, the process is not standardized and can differ from school to school. The decision by the financial administrator, however, is final and cannot be appealed.

Also keep in mind that some schools may have a priority deadline for financial aid ahead of the regular deadline and schools may have exhausted their financial aid budget by the time a student on a college waiting list is accepted for enrollment.

In addition, some schools front-load aid the first year with a heavier mix of grants than loans to attract students, but that mix may not continue in subsequent years. Kantrowitz suggests using the College Navigator website to compare the amounts that first-year students receive in grants versus loans and the percentage of students for each to the equivalent numbers for all undergraduate years to see if a school does front-load grants.

Most important, know that on average “only about 1% of students nationwide receive adjustments to their financial aid awards or packages each year” as a result of a professional judgment review, which is the term colleges use, instead of “negotiation,” when families appeal a financial aid package. Moreover, the decision of the review applies for just one year.

Types of Financial Aid Appeals

There are two main types of financial aid appeals involving FAFSA, according to Kantrowitz: adjustments, which include correcting erroneous information or updating information that has changed since the FAFSA was filed — including changes to a family’s finances, often due to “special circumstances,” — and dependency override, if the student’s status changes from dependent to independent.

Special circumstances may includes changes in income due to job loss, disability or death; unusual expenses due to a natural disaster; changes in the marital status of parents; or a one-time event such as inheritance.

In all cases “adequate documentation” of changed circumstance will be required to validate the claim, and financial aid appeals will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

“Generally, college financial aid administrators are more likely to make an adjustment when a special circumstance is due to factors beyond the family’s control, such as job loss or disability-related expenses, as opposed to discretionary choices,” writes Kantrowitz.

His book includes many do’s and don’ts for families appealing financial aid decisions and we include some, though not all, below:

What to Do When Appealing Financial Aid Decisions

  • Appeal for more aid as soon as you know that circumstances have changed; don’t wait for the financial aid decision before appealing because there may be less money available in a college’s budget for aid by then
  • File an appeal with the financial aid office, not the admissions office, but first call the financial aid office to learn about the process for appeals
  • Write an appeal letter that asks for a professional judgment review and provides details about changed circumstances that affect ability to pay along with contact info
  • Focus on financial aid formula factors such as family income impacted by a natural disaster, not a home mortgage, because that is not part of the financial aid application
  • Be honest and polite in your appeal letter. College college administrators can detect fraud and if they do, the appeal will fail.
  • Have someone outside the family such as a high school counselor contact the school to communicate a student’s special status.

What Not to Do When Appealing Aid Decisions

  • Don’t use the word “negotiation” in your appeal letter. College administrators may be offended.
  • Don’t be the first to offer a number regarding how much aid is needed. The financial aid office knows how much you can afford to pay based on the information you have provided in the financial aid application. It’s important to provide new information that the office doesn’t already have to explain why the offer is not acceptable.
  • Don’t be in a hurry. If the financial aid officer feels under pressure, he or she may not provide as much aid as you would like.
  • Don’t try to bargain without justifying the request with documentation. It may help to mention better financial aid offers from other colleges if those colleges are competitive in terms of net price, acceptance rate and yield (percent of accepted students who choose to attend that college), academics (grade and test scores of accepted students) and reputation, but don’t count on that. Cornell University, for example, will only review other financial aid offers from other Ivy League colleges, Stanford, Duke and MIT, according to Kantrowitz.         

In addition to financial aid, many schools, though not the Ivy Leagues, offer merit-based aid to attract students with strong academic qualifications including above-average SAT and/or ACT scores and top high school GPAs and class rankings.

Students are more likely to qualify for merit aid if they place in the top 25% of incoming freshmen at a particular college for grades and admission test scores, according to Kantrowitz.

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