The Best Ways to Appeal College-Aid Offers

The Wall Street Journal
By Cheryl Winokur Munk
April 5, 2019

Financial-aid packages are arriving on students’ doorsteps, and the big question many students and parents ask is a simple one: Can I get a better deal?

In some cases, the answer is yes. But here’s what they need to know as they approach the typical May 1 deadline for choosing a college.

Where can families find information about the appeals process?
The appeals process can vary somewhat from school to school. A good first step is to search the school’s website for information about the appeals process. Some schools also have online forms for appeals. Beyond that, students can call the contact person on their financial-aid package if they have questions.

How does the process work?
If there is no online submission form, families should craft their appeal in writing, either by hard copy or email. Ideally, they should stick to one page, and be direct and factual about their reasons, says Mark L. Lindenmeyer, interim vice president for enrollment management at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore. Families should also provide relevant supporting documentation and try to avoid nonessential information.

The types of supporting documents will depend on the nature of the appeal and the specific situation. For this purpose, it is important to distinguish between different categories of awards. Some schools offer only need-based aid, meaning a student’s academic or athletic achievements are irrelevant. Others also offer merit aid, which takes these factors into account.

For need-based aid appeals, documentation might include tax returns from the most recent tax year or a listing of out-of-pocket medical expenses. For merit-based appeals, students might highlight significant improvements in their standardized test scores or report card from senior year.

Students should generally expect to hear back from a school within a few weeks, though an institution’s response time can vary depending on the school and the situation’s complexity, says Christine Chu, a college counselor at IvyWise LLC, an admissions consulting firm.

When should a student appeal a need-based award?
In determining financial need, many schools rely on a student’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa, the government form for financial aid. Because there is no way to explain extraordinary financial circumstances on the Fafsa, many families have to wait until the appeal process to elaborate, says Gail Holt, dean of financial aid at Amherst College in Massachusetts. (The College Board’s CSS financial-aid profile has a section for families to explain special circumstances, but not all schools require the CSS Profile.)

Generally speaking, schools won’t reconsider a student’s aid package unless something significant has changed since the initial offer was made. These circumstances may include parental loss of a job, a significant decrease in income, unusually high out-of-pocket medical expenses or atypical one-time expenses. Need-based appeals always should focus on the specific, special and verifiable financial circumstances that could make the family eligible for additional aid, says Scott Wallace-Juedes, director of undergraduate financial aid at Yale University.

What else should families know about need-based appeals?
Families should temper their expectations. Even if a parent loses his or her job, for example, causing a significant impact on the family’s lifestyle, it doesn’t necessarily change eligibility for need-based aid, says Ms. Holt of Amherst College. For instance, it could be that, despite the loss of income, their expected family contribution is still above the annual cost of attendance. If there’s a recent job loss, schools generally require a certain amount of time to pass before reconsidering aid. Also, some colleges verify final year-end income before making a change since the parent could get a new job midyear.

Still, there’s no harm in trying. “The worst that can be said is no,” says Forrest M. Stuart, assistant vice president for financial aid at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.

How likely is a merit-based appeal to succeed?
It depends on the school. Some schools are less apt to negotiate merit aid because they have limited funds and tend to make their best offer upfront.

Other schools may be more willing to reconsider merit aid in certain situations. Some, for example, will reconsider based on standardized test scores in April or June of the student’s senior year of high school. Some schools will also take into account the student’s GPA from first semester senior year if it shows a big improvement, says Nicholas Prewett, executive director of student financial aid at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

He urges students to be as specific as possible in their appeals. He offers the hypothetical example of a student who is just shy of a scholarship’s cutoff based on standardized test scores. Saying he or she isn’t a good test-taker isn’t as compelling an argument as highlighting that the student has a 4.0 grade-point average and should be considered on that basis, he says.

Some schools may even be willing to offer more merit aid based on a package from another school—especially if they are hungry to meet their enrollment goals. It can’t hurt to present a competing offer from another institution and ask if additional funds are available, says Ms. Chu of IvyWise.