What Is a Financial Aid Appeal?
As college-bound students and their families enter the final spring semester of their high school journey, many share one final hurdle/obstacle before choosing a college or university: the cost. Assuming the student followed the application timeline, by the time March and April roll around, they should have the majority of their acceptances and financial aid awards (if you need help understand the financial aid award letter, we've got a blog for that too). The number one question I have received during this time of year, both during my time in college admissions and as an independent educational consultant, is how a family might be able to get more money. Let's dive into what "asking for more money" might look like, when is it appropriate, and how to do it.
For the sake of this blog post, let's say that a student has already sought out and applied for additional scholarships and that it is too late in the process for a financial advisor specializing in college affordability. In most cases, the only avenue left for students and families is to pursue a request for additional financial aid, also known as a financial aid appeal.
What Is An Appeal?
So what is an appeal? Here is how I used to describe an appeal when meeting with students and families as a college admissions counselor:
An appeal is a formal request to obtain additional financial aid from a college or university due to special circumstances. Appeals are often meant to be small, but meaningful amounts of aid that can help make a college or university financially feasible for the family and student.
This definition has been carefully crafted to match the appeals process based on the college I worked at. Every institution treats financial aid appeals differently, and many colleges simply don't consider the request at all. However, within the definition I provided, there are some universal guidelines to be aware of. So, let's reverse engineer this definition to understand some things if you decide to move forward with an appeals process.
All financial aid appeals need to be initiated through some sort of formal communication. Some schools are very casual in their process and you might only have to reach out to the admissions or financial aid office via email. Other institutions might have very rigid and bureaucratic systems that sometimes require a formal form. Regardless of the appeals system, the best place to start is by reaching out to the admissions office or your admissions counselor via email to inquire how to begin the process.
"additional financial aid"
While I use the term additional financial aid, what most families are interested in are additional scholarships or grants. In other words, no family is looking for additional loans from a financial aid appeal. I would strongly discourage a family from seeking any additional loans beyond the federal student loans offered through the FAFSA. If a family wishes to seek additional loans, they'll need to speak with the financial aid office.
"due to special circumstances"
Let's address the elephant in the room: almost every family I've ever met wants additional financial aid. The spirit of an appeal deals with special or extenuating circumstances. So what fits the special circumstances needed to appeal? Here are some examples:
Significant changes in income or employment not reflected in the FAFSA or CSS Profile.
There is a significant expense that was not factored into the FAFSA.
You or your family have been affected by a natural disaster: floods, fires, hurricanes, etc.
"small, but meaningful amounts of aid"
As an admissions counselor I would often have very transparent and straightforward conversations with families about the amount of additional aid they wanted to appeal for. I would emphasize this part of the definition because it set realistic goals and expectations for families. During our conversation, I would let them know what the historical range of appeals had looked like (in this case, it was between $1,000-$4,000). If a family ever approached me with a request for more than that range, I would let them know that it would be statistically unlikely for them to receive their desired amount of additional aid.
"make a college or university financially feasible"
Financial feasibility. The term has become one of my single favorite phrases when discussing the cost of education. Every family would love have their bottom-line be $0, but that is simply unrealistic. Financial feasibility means that with the additional aid from the appeal, the student and family will be able to afford the cost of college until the student's graduation (ideally in four years). I often describe this part of the definition as a scale or balance between the family and the institution. Together, the family and institution want to reach a financial balance for the family to afford their college, while being mindful of the fiscal responsibility to keep a school functioning. In an ideal world, the family and institution can work together so that the degree a student receives four years down the line is worth more than when they entered.
At this point, you should have a good sense of if an appeals process is something that fits your family's needs.
How Do I Write An Appeal?
Now that we've taken the time to determine if an appeal fits what your family needs, let's take a moment to talk about how to write an appeal. Once again, I emphasize that every appeals process is unique and my guidelines are general and should be customized for your family's situation and each school. That being said, there are a few important things that should be included, or at least considered, when writing an appeal.
The appeals process should be a team effort between the student and family. In my opinion, finances are the single greatest consideration during the college search. Each family is encouraged to have honest, open, and transparent conversations about the cost of college and the financial realities of the family. That being said, I recommend that the student reach out personally to begin the appeals process. Parents and students will need to collaborate and there's a chance that parents will become the primary contact for the appeal at a certain point, but a student reaching out on their own shows proactiveness, independence, and a sense of agency.
A common tactic families utilize during appeals is comparing financial aid offers from different institutions. This isn't an inherently bad idea and in some cases it can be very effective. However, there are some important things to keep in mind. When choosing to compare schools, make sure the schools would be considered equitable institutions. When I speak with families I'll often refer back to the old adage of apples and oranges. In other words, they need to make sure that the institutions are comparable. This is often easier than it sounds because rankings might help inform a family's idea of how similar schools are, but also remember that each school has its own interpretation of which schools would be considered peers or rivals. In addition to comparing schools of relatively equal quality, families also need to consider the total cost of attendance for each school. Two schools might have the same bottom line cost to attend, but that does not mean each school is giving you an comparable financial aid package. For example, a school costing $60,000 might give enough scholarships to make the bottom-line $20,000. At the same time, a school costing $30,000 might give enough scholarships to make the bottom-line $20,000. Despite the bottom-lines being the same, one school is giving $40,000 in financial aid while the other is only giving $10,000. If a family tries to compare these two schools, the more expensive school will be quick to point out that they have given more financial aid and that their school is giving a high quality education (because in most consumers eyes, cost=prestige).
If you plan to appeal, make sure to explain the special circumstances which led you to believe that you need to appeal the financial aid award from a college. These circumstances can vary (many of which were listed earlier in this post), but they need to be legitimate concerns when it comes to financial feasibility. Many schools require specific documentation of evidence of financial hardship or change in financial circumstance for an appeal to be successful.
In higher education, there is a divide on whether you should put a specific amount of money in the appeal letter. Many believe that setting up a specific number leads to families losing room in "negotiating" for appeal money. I tend to disagree for two reasons: 1) Many appeals processes will eventually land at some form of committee (usually made up of upper level supervisors from the admissions and financial aid offices). This committee will weigh several factors, including your current financial aid award, your family's Expected Family Contribution from the FAFSA (or the CSS Profile), and the institutional priorities of the college. After doing so, most will arrive at a decision about what to award regardless of your request. 2) I am a strong believer in honesty and transparency (I mean, just look at our logo). Providing a realistic number will usually show the admissions office that you're not just "kicking the tires," that your family has discussed financial realities, and there is a subtle message that if given the specific amount of aid, you will be very likely to deposit/commit to the school.
If a college has offered you loans, then they will consider them in the financial aid appeals process. Just because a family doesn't want their student to take out student loans, doesn't mean a college will provide extra grants or merit-aid to replace the loan options. A student can even turn loan options into a strong appeals talking point, indicating that they are also putting skin in the game and willing to take loans for their education, but they still need a little more aid.
Make sure to clarify (preferably in physical or digital writing) that the aid offered in your successful appeal will last each year for all four years. An unfortunate, but all too familiar, scenario is a family receives $4,000 in appeal aid believing that meant $4,000 each year, but what it actually meant was $4,000 one year or $1,000 each year. Understanding the amount, length, and disbursement of your appeal aid is important in planning four years worth of financial investments.
Is Your Appeal Appropriate?
Most of this blog post has been very deliberately focused on what is generally considered the appropriate reasons to appeal (see my definition of the appeals process). However, there are two other sides of the appeals process that tend to cause anxiety, stress, and frustration for both families and colleges.
Are you just kicking the tires?
In this context, we are talking about pushing an institution to offer more financial aid despite a family not needing it, or pushing for more financial aid to use it as leverage against another institution's financial aid with no intention of enrolling. Generally speaking, this approach is often thwarted when a student's appeal reaches an appeals committee. One of the first things an appeals committee will consider is if the family has enough financial resources to justify their current financial aid package. At this point, a wealthy family attempting to get a little more aid will stick out like a sore thumb.
Using the appeals process to leverage schools against each other is also frowned upon, although a little more difficult to catch. By the time a family has received their financial aid award letter and chosen to appeal, the admissions office will have a particularly large amount of data about a student and be able to gauge a student's actual interest with some accuracy.
Both of these practices are generally frowned upon, but that doesn't mean they don't frequently happen or that they aren't successful strategies. Be mindful of the time and resources that will be invested into your appeals process and how that might affect other families that truly need to utilize an appeals process for its intended purpose.
Is your appeal a pipe dream?
Unfortunately there are many cases in which an appeal is simply a family's attempt to "throw a Hail Mary pass" to try and make a college financially feasible. Taking this approach will likely not work, and most often leads to disastrous outcomes for the family, student, and institution. This is where admission offices most commonly see appeals requesting unrealistic amounts of financial aid to attend an institution (think $10,000-$15,000 requests). Unfortunately, this mindset is also where we commonly see families try to rely on the "we'll make it work" mentality. Families with a deficit of financial resources aren't likely to make it through all four years, even with an appeal. In general, if you're requesting a significant amount of additional aid to attend an institution, then that school is likely not a good financial fit for your family. This is why building a balanced college list and addressing financial fit early in the process is so important.
No family wants to set their student up for failure, and no institution wants to admit a student that won't be able to retain their enrollment at the school. Don't risk the financial, emotional, temporal investment of a student on a pipe dream school that might or might not work out for reasons beyond their control. There are plenty of colleges and universities in the USA and globally that provide more affordable education opportunities.
With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors