The financial aid appeal process
This post is specifically for high school and college seniors who:
- have applied for financial aid and are waiting to receive both admission and aid decisions, or,
- have already heard from their colleges, but have yet to make a final decision on where to attend.
When you are admitted, it’s likely that you will receive an aid notification when your admission letter arrives. (Colleges officially notify applicants by mail even if information is available online sooner.)
The joy of being admitted can often be diminished by the reality of the financial aid decision. If you find yourself in the fortunate position of receiving adequate financial aid from your first choice college, congratulations! You need not read any further into this article. But, given that this fortunate occurrence does not always happen, I expect most of you plan to keep reading. So, let’s talk about the financial aid appeal process.
Appeals, or the act of parents asking for a reconsideration of the original award* when they don’t believe they can manage it financially, is something that happens more than a few times after admission letters are sent and before the response date. If you find yourself in this position, you do not hesitate to politely get in touch with the aid office and ask them what procedure you should follow. Sometimes the matter can be resolved over the phone, but in most instances appeals require you to submit additional information. In my view, it is best to present your case in person if at all possible.
You do not necessarily have to have received an award to appeal. If you have been judged to have sufficient resources to pay the bills for one year (commonly called a “no-need”), and can’t figure out a way to come up with the money, you can appeal that decision in the same way as someone who received an award. The aid office will never give you less money as the result of an appeal, so in a sense you have nothing to lose. On second thought, let me modify that statement. You will lose time and possibly money. An in-person visit (which I strongly recommend) will involve an expense to get to the campus. Make an appointment ahead of time with an aid professional – the higher ranking the better.
A word of caution before I describe the appeal process in more detail. When you talk with an aid counselor about possibly improving the aid you have received, do not say you would like to “negotiate” your award. “Negotiate” is a uniformly unpopular term in the aid profession.
So how does an appeal work? In my experience, appeals generally fall into one of two types – the financial appeal or the competitive appeal. While most families will choose which of these approaches is most appropriate for them, in some cases you may try both avenues.
A financial appeal is the most common. In this type of appeal, you attempt to demonstrate that with your current level of income and assets, you can’t afford to pay the total cost of attendance for the freshman year. For this appeal, you should bring with you all the necessary supporting information – income verification, an update on asset holdings, a list of unusually high expenses, a description of special circumstances, etc. Your objective is to have the aid counselor recalculate the initial Expected Family Contribution (commonly called the EFC) in order to bring it more in line with the reality of what you can afford.
A competitive appeal is based on the (usually friendly) rivalry that can exist between schools when they are roughly on an equal competitive footing, likely to see a lot of common applications, are members of the same conference, and so on. I should point out that while nearly all colleges are willing to review new information that is normally part of a financial appeal, the willingness of a college to respond to a competitive appeal is much less common.
Competitive appeals are almost always restricted to private colleges that are concerned about how they fare against their prime competition. In addition, to even entertain the notion of a competitive appeal, the school needs to have an institutional policy (and sufficient scholarship funds) that “puts them on record” as willing to respond to the aid packages of their rivals. If you have been accepted to a number of schools in the same competitive set that follow similar rules for calculating need, and one of these schools has given you a more generous award, it does not hurt to inquire at you top choice college if they would like to see copies of the other award letter with the intent of improving your original aid award. And, by the way, if you get this far, do not be reluctant to show the college where you are appealing a copy of the other school’s award letter. That is the only way they can substantiate a competitive appeal.
So in a nutshell, these are the guidelines for requesting a reconsideration of your additional award if you fall into either of the two categories mentioned above. If you do, do not be shy about asking your top college how to proceed. In many cases appeals are unsuccessful, but when the college does respond, you may end up with a significant increase in the total amount of aid you receive, making it possible to attend your first choice college without undue financial pressure.