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How to Appeal Your Need-Based Financial Aid Award

Student contacting their top-choice college to appeal her need-based financial aid award

By Amy, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

You’ve just been admitted to the school of your dreams. You are over the moon, sharing your excitement with your family — until you see the financial aid package. What?! Where did that number come from?

Sticker shock over college costs is real. Despite the rollout of net price calculators and general talk about college being expensive, many families are still completely surprised when they see their expected family contributions. Ideally, you’ve done your research ahead of time. I recommend families utilize tools like net price calculators — which are mandated by federal law at any institution that accepts federal aid — and MyinTuition to help estimate costs. Sometimes, however, even the most diligent preparation and research can result in a surprise, especially if your family owns a business or sees large fluctuations in yearly income. Family contributions for divorced or separated parents or guardians can also be complicated and hard to predict.

Thankfully, it’s not the end of the road. You can still appeal your financial aid offer and, while there are no guarantees it will result in more money, you have nothing to lose in trying. (A college will NOT rescind your offer of admission if you attempt to negotiate your financial aid!) I like to remind families that even if an appeal results in another $1,000 in aid, that’s a pretty good hourly wage for an hour or two of effort!

Make Fair Comparisons Between Offers 

Before you can appeal, especially if you’re trying to get one college to “match” another college’s offer, first ensure that you’re comparing apples to apples. Colleges with need-based policies will not compete with colleges that have merit-based or a combination of need and merit policies.

For example, Harvard might look closely at Princeton’s award so they don’t lose a student over the difference of a few thousand dollars. This is an apples-to-apples comparison. But Harvard won’t match a Trustee Scholarship from Boston University — which covers full tuition and fees — or a full-ride Morehead-Cain Scholarship from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. These are apples and oranges.

Do Some Old-Fashioned Math 

You also want to interpret award letters similarly. Each school’s award letter will look different. You need to know how to pull out the relevant info. There are many tools to help families do this, but I recommend keeping it simple by doing some old-fashioned math. Find the total cost of attendance for billed AND non-billed expenses so you have a true reflection of the total cost of a school. Then subtract any grants or scholarships you were awarded that you don’t have to pay back. That’s it. Compare the answers for each school.

It doesn’t matter if one school gives you more scholarships than another if that school costs more to begin with. I don’t compare loans or work study because essentially these numbers can be the same (or very similar) at every school — federal loan amounts are standard and set by the government.

Contact the Financial Aid Office

Now it’s time to call the college’s financial aid office and ask to speak to a financial aid officer. You may want to explain that you are an accepted student (or parent/guardian) and ask who manages the financial aid for this particular group. Explain that you are seeking a reconsideration of your award package. Ask what the process is, who to address your appeal to — they will ask for something in writing — and the due date. Do NOT miss the deadline they give you!

If you can get the officer to explain the details of how they arrived at your award, that’s even better. However, this is rare — at least on a first phone call. But the more you understand about how they calculated your contribution, the better you can prepare and tailor your appeal.

Write Your Appeal Letter 

After you’ve gathered as much info as you can from the financial aid office, it’s time to write your letter. The more stress you convey, the better. They are more likely to respond to a specific situation or circumstance, but just registering your general inability to pay their calculated family contribution is important.

Start the letter with a heartfelt expression of gratitude for what they have done already, and simply state that it does not feel feasible to your family. Then give as many specifics as possible. This is not the time to be embarrassed or ashamed —they have seen and heard it all! Nothing will surprise them, and they can only respond if you share.

Things to consider sharing in your letter:

  • High medical expenses for non-elective procedures or emergency circumstances
  • Fluctuations in income due to medical situations, reduced hours, lay-offs, etc.
  • Low assets and/or retirement savings for your age and/or lack of primary home ownership
  • Better offer from a peer school (attach the award letter, even if they say they don’t match other schools’ awards)

Things colleges won’t take into consideration (although you might want to share them anyway as evidence of general financial stress):

  • Exchange rate fluctuations with foreign currencies
  • The cost of caring for extended family members
  • Home upgrades or repairs such as new roofs, furnaces, remodeling, etc.
  • Car purchases or repairs
  • Private school tuition, as public education is free

When preparing your letter, also consider the colleges’ counter arguments. Financial aid awards consider a family’s overall financial health and ability to absorb the cost of college over time. They don’t expect you to have the money in-hand immediately to cut a check. Instead, they assume you will view college as an investment and draw from savings, assets, and borrowing tools accordingly. Colleges also assume that if you borrow to finance a car or have a mortgage, then borrowing for college should be on the table as well.

Colleges define your income as the money you had in your pocket before any choices were made. It’s essentially your gross income before you funneled anything into a retirement account, an HSA, etc. Owning a business or real estate makes defining income even more complicated. This is a good example of when you’d want to call a college and ask questions about how your income was built in the calculations.

After you’ve written your letter, providing as much detail and evidence as possible (potentially including pay stubs, receipts, award letters, etc.), send it as soon as possible. There are often tight timelines to make decisions, and you don’t want to hold things up on your end.

Stay in Touch with Admissions and Financial Aid 

If you need an extension from admissions, make sure you are in touch with your admissions officer as well. Explain that your financial aid is under reconsideration. Usually, financial aid and admissions offices work closely together, but never make any assumptions. You should be communicating regularly, thoroughly, and honestly with both offices.

In the meantime, do not put down your deposit at the college until you have the results of your reconsideration. When you put down the deposit, you’re signaling that you intend to make the finances happen — whether or not your reconsideration is successful. Financial aid offices can see if you’ve made the deposit, and the reconsideration is unlikely to go your way.

If financial aid officers have any questions about your letter, they will contact you. If you haven’t heard in the timeframe they provided you, make sure you email (for documentation purposes) and call to follow up. Once you have the reconsideration result, feel free to ask further questions if things are still not clear. Sometimes, in complicated situations, it may be necessary to appeal more than once.

It is important to remember that your financial aid officer is on your side and represents you, often to a full committee of other financial aid officers who make decisions as a team. Your financial aid officer is advocating for you and trying to understand your situation so they can make college possible for your family. That said, they are also trying to remain fair and consistent to all families. Try to remain calm and courteous and be grateful for their help.

Regardless of the outcome of the appeal, make sure you discuss financing options with the financial aid office. Ask about a combination of student and parent loans, student employment, outside awards and scholarships, and even university-administered payment plans to help with cash flow. Financial aid officers can go through all of this with you and explain how everything works. They are valuable resources through the reconsideration process and beyond, should you decide to enroll at the school.

A college education is an important investment. If you need help comparing financial aid offers, IvyWise can help. Contact us to learn how we can support you through every stage of the college admissions process, including choosing the best financial aid package.

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