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Can I Appeal My Financial Aid Award?

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Getting accepted to one of your top colleges is an immensely exciting and gratifying experience. However, even if you’re accepted, the rest of your admissions paperwork may not bring good news. This is particularly true if the financial aid award letter you receive doesn’t meet your needs, leaving you in a position that requires some very difficult choices.


If you’re in this situation, you should know that a less-than-ideal financial aid award doesn’t mean the end of the road for you at your dream school. As we’ve previously mentioned in our post You Were Accepted to Your Dream College, But Can’t Afford it… Now What?, you have another option: a financial aid appeal. Asking for your financial aid award to be reconsidered and improved takes some work, but it also gives you another shot at making attending a college you love a practical possibility.


In this post, we’ll go over what it means to appeal your financial aid award, when appealing is a good idea, and how to get your appeal process started.


An Introduction to Financial Aid Appeals

Students who’ve spent any time planning for college will already know that a college education can be very costly. Each college’s financial aid office is tasked with helping students to afford this expense through various types of institutional financial assistance. (Outside scholarships can help cover college costs as well, but these are administered separately, and this post refers only to institutional financial aid that’s specific to one school.)


A given school’s financial aid may consist of any combination of need-based aid, which takes into account how much you can afford to contribute, and merit-based aid, which is awarded based on factors aside from your financial status. Your school’s financial aid office can tell you more about what types of aid that school can provide.


Grant aid, which you won’t have to pay back in the future, is the simplest type of aid to manage. (Take a look at our post How to Evaluate, Compare, and Leverage Financial Aid for more details.) Depending on the school and situation, financial aid awards might also include other ways of making your college costs more manageable, such as student loans, parent loans, and funding for work-study opportunities.


If you’re seeking financial aid, you’ll apply for it alongside your application for admission to a college, generally by filling out forms like the FAFSA and CSS Profile. For more details and guidance on the world of financial aid and its application process, check out our blog post FAFSA, CSS Profile, IDOC, Oh My: A Guide to Financial Aid.


Typically, you’ll receive your financial aid award letter around the same time that you’re notified of your admission decision. This letter from the college’s financial aid office details how much and what kind of financial aid the college has decided to offer you based upon its policies and your qualifications.


Your award letter, which provides your estimated college budget and award offer written out formally on your college’s letterhead, is a serious-looking document, but despite appearances, it isn’t written in stone. In fact, it’s totally possible to ask a college to which you’ve been accepted to reconsider their award offer and — hopefully — provide funding that will make attending that school a better option for you.


If you’re a regular reader of the CollegeVine blog, you may remember our past post How Do I Appeal My Admissions Decision? That post covers the circumstances under which you might be able to contest a college’s admission decision — namely, a rejection — and the reasons why this is not a worthwhile option for most rejected applicants.  


Admissions appeals, to be honest, are rarely successful. Financial aid appeals, however, are often much more worthwhile. Applying for financial aid is complicated, mistakes sometimes do occur, and especially since you’ve already been accepted, it won’t hurt to at least ask for more funding at a school that’s otherwise a good fit for you.


We’ve previously talked about what happens when you receive insufficient financial aid in our post You Were Accepted to Your Dream College, but Can’t Afford it… Now What? As we wrote in that post, a financial aid appeal is a formal request for the college to reconsider the financial aid award they’ve created for you.


Typically, financial aid appeals assume that without a change to your financial aid award, you won’t be able to attend that college at all. The grounds for an appeal are often that something about the college’s initial assessment of your financial situation was incorrect — for example, that the college neglected a special circumstance or a big change in your life.


Below, we’ll discuss what kinds of situations make a good basis for an appeal, and then go over the process of composing and submitting a financial aid appeal.

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When to Appeal

As we’ve mentioned, submitting a financial aid appeal is a generally accepted part of the college application process, and as long as you’re polite and reasonable about it, it’s unlikely to hurt your prospects. However, there are certain situations in which an appeal is particularly appropriate.


These include:


  • When two colleges with very similar aid policies, to which you’ve submitted the same information, give you significantly different financial aid awards. You can often leverage a discrepancy like this to build a strong case for having your award reconsidered.
  • When you have special circumstances that weren’t adequately represented on your original financial aid application. For all the questions that the FAFSA, CSS Profile, and other financial aid forms ask, they don’t cover every possibility. For example, if you have a chronic health condition, the college’s financial aid office may not fully appreciate how much your family has to spend for treatment.
  • When you’ve had a recent change in circumstances that affects your ability to pay for college. This could be a parent’s job loss, an unexpected medical cost, a natural disaster in your hometown, or many other events that could have occurred since you submitted your initial financial aid application.
  • When you’re a recruited athlete, a “hooked” applicant, or an otherwise exceptionally desirable applicant. Remember, given the very strong applicant pools at competitive colleges, you’ll have to be truly unusual to have this kind of leverage. Don’t depend upon this unless the college has already explicitly shown special interest in you.  
  • When college policies explicitly allow financial aid appeals. While many schools will reconsider financial aid awards upon request, some colleges welcome these appeals more than others. Check out the college’s financial aid website and speak to a financial aid officer for more guidance.


When Not to Appeal

By the same token, there are certain situations in which an appeal is less likely to be successful. A well-crafted appeal is still unlikely to hurt you, but under these circumstances, it may not be worth your time and effort.


These situations include:


  • When your appeal is based on a comparison with a college that has substantially different financial aid policies. Every college has different policies for how aid is distributed, and two aid awards aren’t necessarily comparable. This is especially true when one college offers only need-based aid and another offers merit-based aid — colleges using need-based formulas generally don’t match merit-based awards.
  • When you have no new information or special circumstances to present. It’s rare that you can submit the same exact information and receive a different answer — even if the facts are the same, you’ll need to argue your position from a different angle. Appeals are based on the idea that there’s a factor that wasn’t taken into account initially, whether that’s a financial detail or a comparison with another college.
  • When you’re not thinking practically about your family’s ability to pay versus that of others. Students from a huge range of income levels apply to college, and while your assets may seem modest, chances are there are families working with considerably less. At schools that consider your financial need when awarding aid, being reluctant to use your assets to pay for college likely won’t be considered grounds for an adjusted award.


Putting Together Your Appeal Letter

If you’ve decided that appealing your financial aid award is a smart choice for you, it’s time to start crafting your appeal letter. Time is of the essence, especially if you hope to hear back about your appeal before you have to make a final college decision, so you’ll need to move fast while also making sure your letter is complete and convincing.


First, talk to the college’s admissions and financial aid offices for advice. They’ll be able to tell you about that college’s particular policies for lodging an appeal or otherwise getting your financial aid adjusted. They may even be able to advise you on whether an appeal is likely to be helpful in your individual situation.


You’ll also need to talk the issue over with your parents, who can provide insight as to what your financial resources truly are and what special circumstances the college may not have considered. As we’ll cover below, they’ll need to provide the supporting financial or other documentation that will accompany your appeal.


Usually, you’ll start your appeal by writing a formal letter stating why you think your award deserves to be reconsidered. Clarity and brevity are important here — provide enough detail to support your case, but don’t go overboard. As with any interaction with a college, keeping a polite and respectful tone is also a must.


You’ll also need to provide supporting documents, such as award letters from other colleges, and any other evidence necessary to prove your point. This often includes detailed financial records, which can be lengthy, complex, and sensitive. Getting records like these may require your family members to do some legwork of their own, so be prepared. 


Some applicants and their families may be reluctant to provide certain documents due to privacy concerns, but at schools that award aid partially or wholly on the basis of need, a decision can’t be made without this information. To keep a need-based system fair, and to successfully argue that they require more financial aid, applicants must be able to clearly demonstrate their financial need to the college.


After you submit your financial aid appeal, keep in touch with the financial aid office about how the process is going, but don’t go overboard with calls or emails. Ask your financial aid officer for an estimate as to how long it will take to receive a response. The meetings in which appeals are considered and awards are approved don’t necessarily happen every day, so you’ll likely need to wait.


Since you’re asking the financial aid office for a special favor on top of their normal workload, the process will take some time. Stay engaged, but don’t be too pushy — wait for the process to run its course, resist the urge to check in too frequently, and as always, be polite and respectful to the people who are accommodating your request.


For More Information

Managing the financial burden of a college education is an issue that weighs heavy on many college applicants’ minds, but it doesn’t have to be a discouragement or distraction. It will take some additional work to access the resources that can ease this burden, but they exist, and it’s wise to start planning early in order to make best use of them and make informed decisions about how to pay for college.


The CollegeVine blog hosts a huge variety of posts about the financial aid process, from how to fill out the FAFSA to how to find uniquely suitable outside scholarships. Check out our Financial Aid category for more of our expert advice.


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Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.