How to Analyze and Appeal a Client’s Financial Aid Award Letter

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Joe Messinger

By Joe Messinger

March 11, 2022

When it comes to applying to colleges, there’s something your clients need to know: 

The days of the ivory tower are long gone. 

Colleges and universities no longer act as an elite academic institution, whose rules are separate and distinct from the real world. Now, the institutions of higher education act much more like a business. They’re ever mindful of the bottom line, and are aware that students and families are desperate for their “product” (acceptance and, ultimately, attendance!). 

College award letters reflect this financially-focused mindset. Of course, there will be some situations where award letters are clearly written, and your client’s child gets to go to the school of their dreams for a song. However, more often than not, college funding is a confusing process that can leave families disappointed and owing much more than they realized down the road.

This is where you can help. As a financial advisor, your goal is to serve your clients and to consistently provide them with value and expertise. How many times in life can you say you’re able to save your clients $10,000? By following our time-tested analysis and appeal process for financial aid, you’ll be able to help your clients create an affordable option for continuing their child’s education, and set your relationship up for long-term success by contributing to your trust-based foundation. 

So, how do you analyze an award letter? And what does a successful appeal look like? Let’s dive in. 

Analyze Award Letters With Your Clients

Your first step is to analyze all award letters with your clients. Comparing them side by side can give you a sense of what’s available based on your client’s unique financial and merit situation. The vast majority of award letters include:

  1. Grants. These tend to be need-based, so your client’s Expected Family Contribution matters. They may be institution awards or Pell grants for lower-income families who qualify.
  2. Scholarships. These can be either need or merit based, and can come from a variety of places. In your award letter, scholarships from the university will be the only ones represented, and you’ll need to take any private scholarships into account. Typically, scholarships have requirements in order to maintain funding. For example, a student may need to maintain their GPA to stay eligible. 
  3. Work-Study. This is typically an opportunity to work at the university and receive compensation. Students and parents need to decide if they want to maintain a job during school, and whether those funds will help pay for the cost of attendance or if they’ll fund the student’s lifestyle while at school. 
  4. Student and parent loans. The big one! Loans in your client’s financial aid award letters will be backed by the federal government. 

When Does An Appeal Make Sense?

Many parents will look at financial aid award letters and assume the buck stops there – there isn’t any way around the final cost of attendance, and they need to pick the best deal from the colleges their student was admitted into. This isn’t always the case. Sometimes, making an appeal to your college of choice can help to lower the cost of attendance. 

First thing’s first, as the advisor in the relationship your job is to help compare financial aid award letters side by side to understand whether or not they received a fair award. 

You can start by running their information through our College Aid Pro™ software to determine a ballpark expected family contribution, and to get a baseline for how much aid they qualify for.  Next, look at the total Cost of Attendance in each award letter. This is the sticker price of attending the college they’ve been accepted to. Then, look at their Expected Family Contribution in each award letter. How does this compare to the ballpark EFC you calculated with College Aid Pro™? Is it consistent across universities? Finally, evaluate need, or how much financial aid your client is potentially eligible for.  Universities may calculate this differently based on a variety of factors. 

Depending on your client’s various financial aid award letters, you may be a good candidate to appeal for more aid at a preferred university. Here are a few factors that indicate you have a shot at appealing successfully:

  1. It’s a smaller, private college. Large state schools tend to dismiss appeals. 
  2. COVID has impacted attendance at the college in question.
  3. You’ve recently taken a retirement distribution, lowering your wealth. 
  4. You’ve recently been divorced or separated from your spouse.
  5. You’re a business owner.
  6. You have better offers from competing colleges. 

5 Steps to Appeal Successfully

If you want to successfully appeal for more financial aid for your client, you need to take action before May 1st. Waiting until the May 1st deadline shows a lack of interest and dedication to the school you’re appealing to, and doesn’t give them enough time to respond. Instead, follow these steps ASAP:

  1. Bring color and background to your story. The more colleges and universities humanize your client’s case, the more they’ll be willing to accept your appeal. 
  2. Ask for a specific amount of additional aid. Showcase how this specific amount will meet a need and make attendance feasible for your client. 
  3. Highlight other offers your client’s student has received.
  4. Showcase expenses your family has faced that aren’t listed on taxes. If you’re retired, going through a life change, or a business owner, for example, this may apply to you. 
  5. Be persistent and demonstrate interest by communicating across multiple channels. 

As an advisor, you may be asking yourself – is this process truly worth my time? The answer is unequivocally yes. Taking these additional steps to help your client appeal to the college of their student’s dreams can help to solidify your relationship, build trust and goodwill, set the next generation up for financial success, and truly demonstrate your value as an advisor. 

Even if the appeal process isn’t successful, the benefits of nurturing your relationship with your client and their student will have a lifelong impact. It’s moments like these where a financial advisor truly gets to shine and show that they genuinely care, don’t miss it by failing to act!

Want to learn more about how to analyze and appeal financial aid awards? You can view our recent webinar where we cover all of this (and more) by clicking here. In our webinar, you’ll see examples of actual award letters, sample appeal letters, and hear case studies for both merit based and need based appeals.

If you want to grow your practice with college planning or provide better service in this area, go to to schedule a consultation and use coupon code SVNG4COLLEGE15 to get 15% off all business solutions for life.

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