Updated: May 29, 2022
Spring is here, which means it’s decision season for high school seniors everywhere. The “seeds” that were planted in the fall and winter are sprouting in the form of acceptances and denials, with a sprinkling of waitlist offers. For each harvest that brings good news (“We are pleased to welcome you to…”), there is an additional dimension that must be considered: financial aid. Acceptance to a top choice college or university is a cause for celebration, but it’s not a given that every accepted student will be able to afford the cost of attendance at that school. This is where financial aid offers, which are generally sent to students at the same time as or shortly after the initial acceptance letter, can help sway a student’s decision about where to attend. A great financial aid package can seal the deal, while a lower offer might ruin a student’s chances of being able to afford their preferred school. Fortunately, there is a tool available to students who are disappointed with one or more of their financial aid offers and just need a little more financial assistance to be able to attend their top school: the financial aid appeal.
The guiding principle behind these appeals is the concept of professional judgment, which means that financial aid officers have the authority to re-evaluate a student’s expected family contribution after making the initial financial aid offer. By submitting a financial aid appeal, you are asking the financial aid office to take a second look at your family’s ability to pay for college costs. If you’ve received an underwhelming financial aid offer and are
thinking about appealing for more aid, the most important factor to be aware of upfront is that you will need a specific, concrete reason why your family contribution should be reconsidered, and you will need supporting evidence.
This post is intended to provide students who are thinking about asking for more financial aid with a guide to how to best approach the process and maximize their chances of success. Read on for my top eight tips to make the appeals process work for you: four things to know before making your appeal and four guidelines for the appeal itself.
What to do before making an financial aid appeal
1. Evaluate your complete financial aid offers and determine how much more you need
First of all, make sure that you have received the full financial aid offer from a school, not a partial notification. Once you have received all offers and can evaluate them side-by-side, determine the amount your family is expected to pay out of pocket for each college/university. At that point, you might notice one or more of the schools you’re considering is not offering enough financial aid to be affordable.
Before beginning the appeals process, though, it is important to first think about the financial scope of the appeal you’re considering. Let’s say you get in to your top choice school, but the yearly cost of attendance is upwards of $70,000, and you were only offered a $5,000 federal grant, $6,000 in federal loans, and a $4,000 merit scholarship; that leaves $55,000 that your family is expected to cover out of pocket. If what your family can actually afford is closer to $15,000 or $20,000 a year, that means you would be asking for an additional $35,000-$40,000 from that institution. That sum of money is not likely to be awarded to you through a financial aid appeal. On the other hand, if the difference between being able to attend your top choice school or not is a matter of a few thousand dollars, there is a chance that your appeal could lead to that financial gap being filled.
2. Reflect on your concrete reasons for asking for more financial aid
Your financial aid appeal is most likely to be successful if you provide a clear justification for why your family’s ability to pay for college deserves a closer look, supported by reliable evidence. That justification should include one or more of the following reasons:
Changes in your family’s income since the data reported on the FAFSA (COVID-19, wink wink)
A major life circumstance that could impact finances, such as divorce, loss of job, mandatory furlough, illness or death in the family, loss of residence
Medical expenses for one or more family members
A one-time financial event that artificially inflates prior year tax return figures
Expenses associated with caring for one or more members of extended family
Errors in information reported on the FAFSA (note: before the FAFSA submission deadline for individual colleges, errors can be fixed by editing and re-submitting the FAFSA)
Higher financial aid offers from one or more other colleges/universities
3. Compile supporting documents that provide evidence for those reasons
It’s one thing to claim that your family’s financial situation has been disrupted by the pandemic or other factors, but financial aid officers are going to want to see the receipts. Instead of sending your appeal with no supporting evidence and hoping they take your word for it, plan ahead and collect the documents that will prove the life circumstances you cite in your appeal. Examples of relevant supporting documents can include pay stubs that demonstrate a lowered wage/salary, notice of being furloughed by an employer, report of unemployment benefits, signed note from a doctor or social worker that corroborates an explanation of life circumstances, or any other form of documentation in which an unbiased person/agency backs up the claims in your appeal.
4. Research the appeals policy/process at the college or university in question
Before reaching out to the college you will be appealing to, find out if there is an established process or policy for submitting financial aid appeals. Start with the school’s official website by either searching “financial aid appeals” if there is a search function or browsing the financial aid section of the website. If you can’t find any specific information about how to appeal, locate the contact phone number and/or email address for the FA office and ask them for the best way to submit your appeal.
Traditionally, the appropriate way to appeal for more financial aid is by writing and submitting a letter to the financial aid office, and that is still a highly recommended form of communication because it shows effort and professionalism. However, if it’s already April and you need to make a decision by the end of the month, snail mail might make you nervous; in that case, it’s absolutely acceptable to make your appeal over the phone if you can reach the right person in the financial aid office, or, to a lesser extent by sending an email. If you decide that email to send an email because a letter would take too long and you can’t get in touch with anyone over the phone, it’s best to attach a properly formatted letter as a document rather than typing the text of your appeal into the body of the email itself.
How to craft the most effective financial aid appeal:
Explain clearly what you are requesting and why your situation deserves further consideration
When writing or calling to ask for more financial aid, it’s best to be upfront about your purpose: don’t beat around the bush in an attempt to soften the impact of your request. If you have calculated an exact or approximate amount of money that you would need to be able to attend a given school, include that figure in your appeal. Make sure to convey your sincere desire to be a student at that college or university, and explain that your family would need additional financial support for that dream to become a reality. After clearly presenting the purpose of your appeal, begin describing the factors that demonstrate why your financial circumstances should be re-evaluated, then politely conclude by asking if there are any further steps to take or information to provide.
Be specific and literal when citing factors that support your reasoning
The details are where your appeal can be personalized, which will help you stand out to the individual(s) making a judgment in your case. Include any factual information that will ground your explanation in the real world, such as the name of your parents’ employers, the specific events that led to unemployment, the dates when those events occurred, etc. Be specific with numbers too, including the actual amount that your parents’ income has been reduced by, the cost of the medical bills that impact your family’s finances, or the dates when your parents were furloughed during the pandemic. If citing higher financial aid offers from other schools, include the actual figures that are being offered to you for comparison.
Write or speak in a direct but respectful tone and make sure to proofread
Your appeal should be made through formal language with a tone that puts all the focus on the facts in your case. If you have strong reasons for your appeal to be considered, you should not feel the need to dress up your request with emotional appeals and superlative statements. It’s ok to allow your passion for attending that school to shine through, but avoid any hint of entitlement or arrogance like the plague. After you finish writing the appeal, comb through it to fix any grammar or spelling errors that you notice, then ask a family member or friend to proofread it with a second pair of eyes. Although you are not being “graded” on your writing style, a financial aid appeal is an example of the type of professional communication that will be expected of you in the adult world, and frequent mistakes can make a poor impression.
Submit your official appeal documents as soon as possible
The process by which a financial aid office reviews and makes a judgement on your appeal takes time, and it’s risky to hope for a successful outcome if submitting an appeal late into the process. For any current seniors appealing for more financial aid for Fall 2021, the time is now to make your appeal, since you need to make a decision about which school to attend by May 1st. For students who may be dealing with this process in future years, the timeline between when you will receive all or most of your financial aid offers and when you have to make your final decision is pretty compressed; it’s a matter of weeks, not months, so it’s best to begin this process as soon as you realize that you might need to make an appeal.
In closing, I’d like to address the question of likelihood. Is it likely that my appeal will work and I’ll be awarded enough additional funds to be able to go to my top school? In reality, appeals are unsuccessful more often than not, but a silver lining of the pandemic is that colleges have seemingly been awarding a higher rate of students than before with additional aid through appeals. What I can say with certainty is that appealing for more financial aid will never lead to your initial financial aid offer being rescinded, which means there is basically nothing to lose by asking for more. If you feel that you have a valid reason for why your family contribution should be reconsidered, based on the common reasons shared above, there is no harm in submitting an appeal but potentially much to gain.
Happy decision season to all!