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Can You Appeal Your Financial Aid Offer?

It’s the most exciting time of year here at College Futures. Between November and April 1, admission notices are gradually posted on college portals for high school seniors. Getting into the colleges of your choice is the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice, both in and out of school, and should be celebrated as such. All of that time and effort spent studying, writing, practicing—often at the expense of doing something more fun—have finally paid off.

But along with admissions letters come the accompanying—and often confusing—financial aid offers, which can frequently make or break a students’ ability to attend. At College Futures, we always talk about finding the right school that matches a student’s academic, social, and financial criteria. And unfortunately, sometimes the financial side can outweigh all of the positives in the two other categories.

What can be done?

I often get parent questions such as “How do we make this work?” “Can we ask for more assistance?” at this point of the process.

The official answer is yes; it never hurts to ask. You can always contact the Office of Financial Aid and talk to an administrator about the possibility of more assistance. The staff are typically more than happy to answer any and all questions you might have, and they genuinely want to make enrolling at their school feasible for you.

However, the real answer is more of a “yes, but… “ situation because there may be only a limited number of circumstances in which the Financial Aid Office will actually grant you an appeal and just a few cases in which aid packages are increased.

From the colleges’ perspective, they have spent a lot of time and energy fine-tuning the exact formula to determine aid amounts based on a family’s financial situation; they have also taken time to personally and carefully review that information. A second review is not going to change the data they are working with, unless you incorrectly filled out the FAFSA or CSS Profile. (If you feel you made a mistake, contact the financial aid office as soon as possible, and they will work with you to gather the correct information so they can make a more informed decision. Remember that unlike federal aid, institutional aid is limited to a set budget amount every year, and it is first-come, first served.)

Other than a true mistake, the situations that could qualify you for additional aid are typically limited to those in which your financial situation has changed in the time between when you filed your prior prior year’s taxes and when an aid offer is given. (A spring 2024 aid offer, for example, is made based on a family’s 2022 tax return.) In these cases, the college will want to know how and why your income was reduced—with documentation to back up your claims. A few examples that would qualify include:

  • Job loss of a parent

  • Divorce or separation of parents (which can significantly increase each parent’s living expenses)

  • Death of a parent (and therefore loss of family income)

  • Reduced income due to a parent’s job change

  • Reduced ability or inability to work due to caring for a sick or aging family member

  • Reduced ability or inability to work for physical or mental health reasons

  • Change in the student’s status from dependent to independent

  • Large unreimbursed medical expenses

  • Catastrophic business or personal loss from an unforeseen event, such as a natural disaster

In these instances, colleges are more than happy to work with you. If you feel you meet one or more of these scenarios, or you would like to see if your aid package can be re-assessed, here are the steps we recommend you take to make a formal appeal:

  1. Call the Office of Financial Aid and ask to speak with an administrator. Briefly explain your situation and ask any questions you have. It goes without saying, but be sure to be polite and respectful at all times. This is not the time to be argumentative or take your anxiety and frustrations out on the staff person, however understandable those frustrations are (yes, the financial aid process is stressful). Being polite will certainly help your case go further. One question we hear often is whether the college will consider “matching” an award from a different school. The answer, unfortunately, is most likely “no.” The majority of the time, your first offer is the best offer the school could put together for you. This is because different colleges have different endowment levels, budgets, needs, and, if public, state subsidy amounts. Simply put, some colleges are able to offer more aid than others. But again, it never hurts to ask. For example, in some unique circumstances related to merit scholarships for athletic, musical, or academic talents, some colleges have been known to compete for a student. Just be polite and have realistic expectations.

  2. Once your questions have been answered and you have the information you need, write out a formal letter of appeal that explains how and why your financial circumstances have changed. If possible, include an estimate of what you think you (and your spouse, if applicable) will earn in the coming year and how much you expect to be able to pay towards college expenses.

  3. Collect of all of the documentation needed to prove your case. This might include, for example, medical bills, termination notices, bank statements, pay stubs, W-2 forms or tax returns for the prior year, unemployment benefit records, etc. Sometimes it helps to supplement these types of “official” data with letters from a school counselor, social worker, medical professional, etc.

  4. In addition, most colleges will ask you to complete a form that they will send you. Answer all questions asked both truthfully and fully, and send the form back along with your formal letter and supporting documentation as soon as possible.

  5. Wait patiently. Give the financial aid office time to review your case. Try not to pester them with daily phone calls and emails right out of the gate. Keep in mind that the typical response time to an aid appeal is about one-to-three weeks. If you have not heard back after two weeks, contact the office again and politely ask for an update, because institutional aid does run out.

Sill have questions or need further assistance? Contact us. If you have questions about your award letters, making comparisons between different financial aid offers, or need help crafting a strong letter of appeal, give us a call. College Futures is here to help.

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