If you didn’t get enough financial aid, you can always ask for more. The worst that can happen is the college financial aid administrator says “no.” But, to increase the chances of a successful appeal, it is important to understand how the appeals process works.
College financial aid is not like negotiating with a car dealership, where bluff and bluster will get you a bigger, better deal. Appealing for more financial aid depends on presenting the college financial aid office with adequate documentation of special circumstances that affect the family’s ability to pay for college.
[See also How to Get More Financial Aid for College, which provides tips on how to increase eligibility for need-based financial aid. Also, read about how to find scholarships and how to increase your odds of winning a scholarship.]
What is a Special Circumstance?
Special circumstances include any financial circumstances that have changed in the last two years or anything that differentiates the student from typical students.
The top ten most common special circumstances include:
- Job loss or decrease in income
- Divorce or separation of a dependent student’s parents
- Death of a dependent student’s parent
- Special needs or disabled children
- Unreimbursed medical and dental expenses
- Catastrophic loss, such as damage or loss from a natural disaster
- Textbook costs beyond the standard allowance in the cost of attendance
- Change in the student’s marital status
- Dependency override
- End of child support, Social Security benefits for a child or alimony payments
When Can You Appeal for More Financial Aid?
You can appeal for more financial aid at any time.
You can appeal before you apply for financial aid. You can appeal after you apply for financial aid. You can appeal in the middle of the academic year. You can appeal during the first year in college or after the first year in college.
It is best to appeal for more financial aid as soon as a special circumstance has occurred. For example, if a parent has lost their job, appeal for more financial aid as soon as you’ve received the layoff notice or termination letter.
Note that an appeal lasts for only one year. If the special circumstances still apply, you must appeal again in subsequent years.
How to Appeal for More Financial Aid
To appeal for more financial aid for college, follow these steps:
- Call the college financial aid office to ask about the appeals process. Depending on the college, the appeals process might be called a professional judgment review, a special circumstances review or a financial aid appeal. The college may ask you to complete a form that addresses the most common situations. Most colleges ask the family to write a letter.
- Identify the special circumstances that affect your ability to pay for college. The special circumstances are the reasons why you are appealing for more financial aid. You might have just one special circumstance, or you might have several, but you need to have at least one. Wanting more money is not sufficient justification for a financial aid appeal. The special circumstances provide the reasons why you need more money. Focus on needs, not wants.
- Write an appeal letter. Keep the letter concise, limiting it to one or two pages. The letter should summarize the special circumstances and their financial impact on the family. If there is more than one special circumstance, provide a bulleted list of the special circumstances, with one special circumstance per bullet. Organize the special circumstances according to the financial impact, listing the most significant special circumstance first. Be specific, especially concerning dates and the financial impact. Emphasize when a special circumstance is due to factors beyond the family’s control. College financial aid administrators are less likely to approve changes that are due to discretionary choices, such as lifestyle expenses. Include your contact information on the letter, in case the financial aid office has follow-up questions.
- Don’t ask for a specific amount of money. The change in financial aid package will be based on the financial impact of the special circumstances on the family, not how much money you are requesting. Requesting a specific amount of money might cause you to get less money than you really need. Some colleges will give you the calculated change in financial need or the amount you asked for, whichever is less.
- Be polite, as there is no appeal beyond the college financial aid administrator. You cannot appeal to the college president or to the U.S. Department of Education. Congress delegated the authority to make adjustments to the data elements on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to the college financial aid administer, and only the college financial aid administrator. Close the letter by thanking the college financial aid administrator for their consideration of your appeal.
- Gather independent third-party documentation of the special circumstances. Examples of documentation include copies of layoff notices, medical/dental bills, bank and brokerage account statements, receipts, and letters from people who are familiar with the family’s situation. Letters should ideally be written by people who are unrelated to the family, such as teachers, school counselors, social workers, doctors and police. Letters from priests, rabbis, pastors, imams and other clergy can also be helpful. The documentation must be related to the special circumstances.
- Complete any forms required by the college financial aid office. These forms are designed to gather details about the special circumstances and other aspects of the family’s financial background. Most colleges perform a holistic review of the family’s financial circumstances as part of an appeal for more financial aid.
- Attach copies of documentation to the appeal letter. Do not send originals, as they will not be returned. At many colleges, the documentation will be imaged and then shredded.
- Mail the letter, documentation and forms to the college’s financial aid office. It is best to send the letter with delivery confirmation or by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you have proof that the letter was received. Send the letter to each of the colleges to which the student has applied, since each college performs its own review of the financial aid appeal.
- Follow-up by calling each college’s financial aid office a week after mailing the appeal letters, to confirm receipt. Ask the college financial aid office if they need any more information.
What Happens If Your Appeal Is Approved?
The process is largely formulaic and data-driven.
If your financial aid appeal is approved, it will be implemented by making a change in the data elements on the FAFSA. For example, if a parent has lost their job, the financial aid administrator will change the income and income tax figures on the FAFSA.
This will generate a new expected family contribution (EFC) using the FAFSA’s standard financial aid formula. The EFC will yield a new figure for demonstrated financial need, based on the difference between the cost of attendance and the new EFC. This, in turn, will yield a new financial aid package.
The college financial aid administrator can also implement some adjustments through a change to the cost of attendance. Changing the cost of attendance is more common when the student’s EFC is already zero, since the EFC cannot be reduced below zero.
This article is based on the book, How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid, written by Mark Kantrowitz, Publisher and VP of Research for Savingforcollege.com. The book is available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle formats.