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.