You've probably been told that everyone should apply for financial aid because there's usually something for everyone. But suppose that something turns out not to be enough? Don't give up. You've got options.
Getting a financial aid package that is less than you hoped for is disappointing to say the least, especially if it means that you won't be able to attend your first- or second-choice school. Before you abandon the college of your dreams, however, consider having a discussion with a financial aid officer at the college. Here are some guidelines for making an appeal for more aid.
Take Action as Soon as Possible
By the time admission letters go out, most colleges have used up their allocation of financial aid, especially grants and scholarships. So, timing is crucial. Once you and your parents know about new financial circumstances that could affect your eligibility for financial aid, or you find errors in the FAFSA or PROFILE, contact the college immediately even if you have not been admitted yet.
Make Sure Your EFC Is Accurate
After you have filed your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you'll get an estimate of what colleges will expect you and your family to pay. This figure is called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), and it appears on your Student Aid Report (SAR), which the government will send to you after receiving your FAFSA. If you filed a CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, you'll receive a PROFILE Acknowledgement Report with similar information. The lower the EFC, the more aid you will be eligible for.
Analyze each report carefully. Do all the figures you submitted look accurate? Could a figure have been put in the wrong box? Did you or your parents pay taxes that were radically higher or lower than what you estimated on the FAFSA or PROFILE? Remember, the FAFSA provides a "snapshot" of your financial situation on the date you originally signed it. Your corrections must be valid as of that date—not afterwards. Corrections to the PROFILE may reflect the date the circumstances changed (or will change) within your household.
Your EFC may seem unreasonable even though it is accurate according to the FAFSA and PROFILE formulas. Colleges are open, however, to learning more about your financial situation. Read "Report Financial Changes or Missing Information" later in this article to find out how to approach colleges with changed or additional information.
Correct Any FAFSA or PROFILE Errors
You can make corrections to your FAFSA directly on the SAR or you can make corrections on the FAFSA website. Corrections to the FAFSA must be done through the government, not the college, but corrections due to a change in circumstances after filing the FAFSA (see below) are done through the college.
If you submitted the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE and you'd like to make changes, you cannot submit changes online. You can update the Acknowledgement Report directly and send copies of that report to all the colleges on your list. Contact the College Board for more information. Be sure to contact the financial aid offices at your prospective colleges to let them know you have submitted corrections.
Report Financial Changes and New Information to the College
To report changes in circumstances or to provide additional information not included on aid applications, you must appeal directly to the college. In fact, the most common appeals are based on family circumstances that are not reflected in the questions asked by the FAFSA or PROFILE. Check with the college to verify its procedure for submitting and documenting this information. Financial aid offices are likely to consider the following circumstances:Life changes
- Disability or serious illness
- Divorce, separation, or remarriage
- Birth of sibling
- Care for elderly parent
- Unemployment or lowered income
- Moved or sold home
- Tuition for private school
- Increase in child care expenses
- Siblings attending college
- Changes in number of dependents in household
Again, it is important to notify the college's financial aid office as soon as you are aware of any change of personal circumstances.
Ask for More Gift Aid
Keep in mind that the aid that really reduces college cost is gift aid (scholarships and grants). This is aid you don't have to repay or earn. Self-help aid (loans and work-study) will not reduce your college cost in the end, although this type of aid can make it easier for you to pay for college yourself. Aid officers may be open to discussing an increase in gift aid if you are a desirable candidate for admission, have a strong case, and make your appeal early.
Ask for a Look at Your Cost of Attendance (COA)
The standard cost of attendance used in your aid calculation may not take into account costs that apply to your situation. For example, you might have higher transportation expenses if you live far from the college; purchases may be required for your major, such as a computer; or there may be costs to accommodate a disability. The financial aid office has the authority to increase the COA for your situation, which increases your financial need. If the college has aid available, that means they can increase your aid package.
Tips for Working with the College
- Know the procedure for filing an appeal. You can usually find general guidelines for filing an appeal on the college's website, such as the types of circumstances the financial aid office will consider for appeal, whether you should submit your appeal by letter or use a special form, or if you can make the appeal over the phone. If you can't find this information on the website, contact the financial aid office directly.
- Decide whether you or your parent should contact the aid office. Aid officers say they are impressed with a student who takes the initiative to make the call. In many situations, however, the parent is better prepared to discuss a family's financial situation.
- Be prepared to provide documentation. The financial aid officer is likely to ask for documentation of the circumstances that have changed your financial picture. This could mean an official letter from your mom's company confirming that she was laid off or financial records for the past six months that show a steady loss of income. Colleges will not adjust aid eligibility without documentation. Nor will they make adjustments "in anticipation" of changes.
- Know how attractive you are to the college. You will have more leverage with the aid officer if you are a top student or have another talent or skill the college is seeking, such as musical or athletic ability. Know how your GPA and grade point average stack up against the kind of students the college normally accepts. CollegeData's College Match can help you research these qualities. If you believe you are a desirable student, explore the possibility of getting or increasing a merit scholarship from the college. (Such scholarships may be handled by the admissions office, rather than the financial aid office.) If you have been in touch with a professor or coach, they might be able to put in a good word for you as well.
- If you are appealing an aid package, wait until you have other offers in hand. You will have more leverage if at least one other college has accepted you and offered you a better financial aid package.
- Don't challenge the college with an ultimatum. Don't flatly ask to "negotiate" a deal. Ask for their help rather than making a demand. Explain how much you really want to attend that college, but that you may not be able to because the aid package doesn't fully meet your financial needs. If another college has accepted you and offered a more attractive package, say so.
- Say please and thank you. When asking for more gift aid or simply updating your eligibility factors, approach the parties holding the purse strings in a calm, professional, and reasonable manner. You're more likely to come out ahead.
You Can't Always Get What You Want
Despite your efforts, the college may still not be able to provide you with as much aid as you need. At this point, you must decide whether to walk away from the offer and attend another college, or accept the offer and find other funding sources, such as private loans or scholarships.
Note: Financial information provided on this site is of a general nature and may not apply to your situation. Contact a financial or tax advisor before acting on such information.