How to Appeal for More Financial Aid for College

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Mark Kantrowitz

By Mark Kantrowitz

August 16, 2023

Your financial aid award letter lists a package of various types and amounts of financial aid available to you, but they sometimes fall short of your need.

If you don’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 chance of a successful financial aid 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 family financial circumstances that have changed in the last two years or any financial circumstances that differentiate the student from typical students. 

The top 10 most common special circumstances include:

  1. Job loss or decrease in income 
  2. Divorce or separation of a dependent student’s parents
  3. Death of a dependent student’s parent
  4. High unreimbursed dependent care costs for a special needs or disabled child or elderly parents
  5. High unreimbursed medical and dental expenses
  6. Catastrophic losses, such as damages or losses from a natural disaster like a tornado, hurricane, pandemic, or flood
  7. Textbook costs beyond the standard allowance in the cost of attendance
  8. Change in the student’s marital status
  9. Dependency override
  10. End of child support, Social Security benefits for a child or alimony payments

As part of the changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that take effect for the 2024-2025 school year, special circumstances will also include unusual business, investment and real estate losses, as well as severe disability of the student, parent or spouse.

What is a Dependency Override?

A college financial aid administrator can change a student’s dependency status from dependent to independent when there are unusual circumstances. This is called a dependency override.

Dependency overrides generally involve the end of the family relationship, such as court protection from abuse orders against the parents, long-term incarceration or institutionalization of both parents, and abandonment of the student.

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 the 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. The sooner you appeal for more financial aid, the most likely you are to get a favorable result.

Note that an appeal lasts for only one year. If the special circumstances still apply, you must appeal again in subsequent years.

See also: Complete Guide to Financial Aid and the FAFSA

How to Appeal for More Financial Aid

To appeal for more financial aid for college, follow these steps:

  1. Call the college financial aid office to ask about the financial aid 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 an appeal letter.
  2. 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.
  3. Write a financial aid appeal letter. Keep the letter concise, limiting it to one or two pages. The appeal 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 dollars. 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 in the appeal letter, in case the financial aid office has follow-up questions.
  4. 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 backfire, causing 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.
  5. 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 administrator, and only the college financial aid administrator. Close the letter by thanking the college financial aid administrator for their consideration of your appeal.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Mail the financial aid appeal 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.
  10. 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.

A Tool for Writing the Financial Aid Appeal Letter

Swift Student provides a tool for writing the financial aid appeal letter for free. They also provide several templates for various special circumstances

There’s just one caveat. The tool assumes that the family is affected by just one special circumstance. But, when it rains, it pours. Often, families are affected by several special circumstances at once. For example, if a primary wage-earned has a serious illness like cancer, they might also experience a pay cut at the same time, and so be affected by a drop in income and high medical expenses. Even if they don’t lose their job, they might no longer be able to earn overtime. 

So, when using the Swift Student tool, you may need to run it once for each special circumstance, then merge the appeal letters it produces.

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 Student Aid Index (SAI) using the FAFSA’s standard financial aid formula. The SAI will yield a new figure for demonstrated financial need, based on the difference between the cost of attendance and the new SAI. 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 SAI is already zero or lower.

Financial aid administrators are also more likely to make an adjustment to the cost of attendance when the appeal concerns the cost of attendance, such as textbook costs, transportation expenses, dependent care costs and disability-related expenses. 

Recent Developments Concerning Financial Aid Appeals

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, implements FAFSA simplification effective starting with the 2024-2025 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). However, some of the changes are being implemented early, starting with the 2023-2024 award year. These changes include:

  • College financial aid administrators can no longer have a policy or practice of denying all financial aid appeals. Every appeal must be considered on a case-by-case basis.
  • College financial aid administrators cannot limit adjustments to just the data elements on the FAFSA or just the components of the cost of attendance.
  • Dependency overrides will be assumed to continue for the duration of the student’s entire college enrollment. College financial aid administrators can rely on a dependency override made by a financial aid administrator at another college in the same or previous year, if there isn’t any conflicting information.
  • Requests for a dependency override must be evaluated within 60 days of the start of the student’s enrollment in the college.
  • Income earned from work may be set to zero due to unemployment during a qualifying emergency.
  • Determination of homelessness must be made without regard to the reasons why the student is unaccompanied and/or homeless.
  • Eligibility for unsubsidized Federal Direct Stafford Loans no longer requires parents to cut off all financial support.
  • Emergency aid will no longer reduce the student’s other aid.

What You Can Do If Your Financial Aid Appeal is Not Approved

If your financial aid appeal is not approved, you can explore other ways to pay for college. If you haven’t done so already, apply for as many scholarships as possible. Claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) or other education tax breaks. You may also consider borrowing a private student loan to cover costs. 

This article is based on the book, How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid, written by Mark Kantrowitz. The book is available on in paperback and Kindle formats.

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