As you and your college-bound high school senior are deciphering complex financial aid offers, here is a little-known secret: Those numbers are not necessarily final.
It is possible to appeal a college’s financial award package and ask for more “free” money, i.e., grants or scholarships you won’t have to repay like loans.
We are going to walk you through the inner workings of appeals, show you how to evaluate the overall fairness of the offer, including a tool that might help, and then we’ll outline 5 best practices to create a strong strategy.
How do appeal processes work?
It was just a few years ago that college applicants and their families began to realize that it is possible—and not unusual—to appeal the financial aid offer.
To get you started on the right foot, a couple of insider tips:
- It’s an appeal, not a negotiation. You don’t have any cards up your sleeve to bargain; you’re asking. Hence, it’s an appeal.
- Before you even begin to formulate your appeal strategy, find out if the school of your choice has a specific appeal process. It varies widely from school to school. Some define a very rigorous process, others are much more casual and informal. Follow those guidelines!
Is the appeals process the same for all colleges and universities?
No, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Not only do different schools employ different appeal processes, but the likelihood of your appeal also depends on whether you are applying to a public university or a private college.
Public universities—it is what it is
Tax-funded educational institutions rarely respond favorably to appeals. Because their financial aid offers are driven by formulas, they often won’t budge. Even if they indicate they might, they typically won’t reconsider the offer until the beginning of the fall semester. The timing doesn’t work in your favor if you and your college-bound son or daughter need to make a decision now.
There are two exceptions:
- Your appeal is prompted by some great misfortune or even a tragedy, such as a job loss followed by sustained unemployment or underemployment, a severe accident or illness, divorce or death, or similar.
- You can show a one-time withdrawal from your retirement account to pay for expenses in connection with a major life change as outlined above.
If either condition applies, your appeal has a greater chance of being successful.
Private colleges and universities—more wiggle room
Privately funded educational institutions are not bound by federally mandated funding methodologies and can show more flexibility when responding to appeals. Your prospects of successful appeals tend to be better with private colleges.
Who should appeal, the parents or the student?
Both the parents and the student should appeal. The parents’ appeal is usually based on financial figures and will focus on the need for more financial aid that doesn’t have to be repaid.
The student’s appeal demonstrates merit. They should add an emotional narrative that shows their commitment to excellence and hard work as well as their eagerness to attend the particular college. For example, they should mention improved grades, test scores, or recent awards. If they were unable to take the SAT or ACT because of COVID-19, they should refer to the college’s “test-flexible” or “test-optional” admission guidelines (if applicable) and the subsequent obligation to treat all applications equitably.
They should also ask what the college would like them to do to bolster their appeal, such as a personal or phone interview. In summary, the student needs to stress how invested they are in the college application and funding process.
The appeal must be in writing. Phone calls or even one-on-one appointments with the appropriate counselor are not sufficient.
That brings us to the next point.
Who should the appeals go to, the financial aid or admissions office?
It depends on the school, but it’s not uncommon to appeal to both.
The needs-based appeal, usually from the parents, goes to the financial aid office. The student’s appeal is directed to the admission office.
Find out who those contacts are, along with their contact information. Schools typically assign admission counselors either by the students’ last name or region, and they may have a similar process for financial aid officers. Address your appeals to them personally. Don’t write, “Dear Financial Aid Office,” but “Dear Mr. Smith” or, informally, “Dear Jake.”
When should you appeal?
You have two choices, and both offer pros and cons.
One option is to appeal as soon as possible after receiving the full award offer. Submitting your appeal early might put you at the front of the line, especially if your college of choice responds to appeals on a first-come-first-serve basis. But be aware of delayed responses; some colleges don’t review appeals until September on principle.
Your other option is to wait until you have received all full award offers from every school that has accepted you. That could give you a bit of leveraging power if the other colleges offer more money in scholarships or grants.
But remember both insider tips: Know the college’s appeals process and realize that you’re not in a position to negotiate or bargain; you’re merely asking.
We just gave you a general overview of the appeals process; now let’s address another question. Your personal financial needs aside, wouldn’t you like to know whether the offer you received was fair or even based on accurate information?
Can you appeal after May 1st?
Many families are currently reviewing financial aid award offers, and even though May 1st is the universal “decision” day for colleges where students must commit, you can still appeal your financial aid offer. Typically, colleges and universities operate under a “code of ethics” that doesn’t allow them to continue marketing to college-bound seniors after May 1st.
However, even if you’ve put down a deposit to attend one university (assuming it’s a standard, non-binding agreement), you can still continue to negotiate. We don’t typically recommend this as a course of action, but with coronavirus dramatically impacting the admissions and financial aid process, this year may require a different approach. In fact, some colleges and universities are still in the process of getting finalized financial aid packages out to accepted students.
Let’s say you’ve put a deposit down to attend University A. But, just before May 1st, you received an offer from University B that’s significantly better. You can always take this offer to University A and essentially say I will attend University B, forfeiting my deposit with University A, unless we can revisit my financial aid package.
This strategy isn’t guaranteed to work, but it’s worth considering if you’re truly committed to attending a university that may still be somewhat higher priced than other colleges you were accepted into.
How fair or not is your financial aid offer?
Financial aid offers are not easily comprehended. The terminology and methodology of calculating your award vary widely from school to school, so let’s pick apart a few key terms and principles:
- Scholarships: Free money you or your student doesn’t have to repay. Usually awarded for four years in equal or predetermined installments. Often contingent on conditions such as maintaining a minimum GPA or full-time student status.
- Grants: Another form of free money you or your student doesn’t have to repay. Often need-based and typically, subject to re-application each year. Sometimes called “scholarship” by the school
- Work-Study: A chance of employment on campus that pays up to a specified dollar amount, i.e., money the student has to earn by working. Off-campus job opportunities might be more lucrative.
- Loans: Money the parents or the student has to repay, typically with interest.
Scrutinize the information to figure the Cost of Attendance (COA) and your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
Be especially vigilant to determine whether or not the college has unfairly included
- Income from step-parents
- Business income not adjusted for IRS allowable deductions, such as losses and depreciation
You’ll also want to consider the COVID-19 impact on your offer and consider optional costs, e.g., health insurance for the student or study-abroad programs. This software tool offers an efficient and effective way to evaluate the financial aid for these criteria, which could greatly bolster your appeal.
5 best practices for an offense
Now that you know how college appeals processes work, plan your strategy:
- Bring color/flavor to your narrative. Figures, while powerful, never tell the whole story. Show the impact of the coveted college admission and why the current financial offer has turned the initial exuberance (“Yes, I get to go”) into deflation (“My parents and I can’t afford it.”)
- Ask for a specific amount of additional aid. Be clear. Show that you’ve done your homework and present a reasonable request. Offer to commit as soon as the appeal has been approved.
- Share offer awards from other colleges. Emphasize that this particular college is still your first choice, but you will accept other offers if they mean less financial strain for you and your family.
- If you are a business owner, challenge the EFC based on your business income and deductions. Ask point-blank: “Have you included business deductions allowed by the IRS in your assessment of my total adjusted income? If yes, please review my tax statements and recalculate.”
- Be persistent. But be nice. You want the financial aid and admission counselors to be on your side so they will advocate for you.
Working out how to pay for your child’s college education is a nail-biter. We’re here to help you through it and make a financial decision that will put your mind at ease and your son or daughter through the college of their choice.
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