Negotiating & Appealing Financial Aid Offers

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

College financial aid packages are not final. Often, financial aid offers can be negotiated or appealed. This lesson discusses the possible reasons for negotiating or appealing a financial aid package, including how to properly appeal.

Financial Aid Packages

Congratulations! You were accepted to your top-choice college. Your hard work in high school paid off, and you can't wait to get to campus. Just one problem: you cannot afford to go.

This problem is more common than you might think. With college costs rising, more students depend on hefty financial aid packages in order to attend. A student's financial aid package often includes different offers of aid from various sources. It can include scholarships, loans, grants, and work-study programs.

The overall offer is meant to help cover the difference between your expected family contribution (EFC) and cost of attendance (COA). Your EFC is the amount your family is capable of paying toward college expenses, as calculated by filling out various pieces of financial information on the standard Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Your COA is the estimated cost to attend that particular college.

However, many students find the college's financial aid package does not quite bridge the gap between their EFC and COA. Others find that their EFC is just too high. Should you pick another college? Not yet.

Can I Appeal?

Financial aid packages are offers. The original package is not necessarily final. You can negotiate, or appeal. This process is common, and known as a professional judgment review or a special circumstances review. It is governed by federal law 20 United States Code 1087, and does not affect the college's decision to accept you.

A review gives you the opportunity to explain any new or unique financial situations to the financial aid officer, and for that officer to use his or her judgment to recalculate your award rather than rely on a preset formula. The officer can adjust the data in your FAFSA, which can affect your EFC. The officer can also adjust your COA.

These reviews are often successful, but only when the student presents valid and compelling reasons for an adjustment. Generally, this includes major financial changes since completing the FAFSA or unusual family circumstances that cannot be properly communicated through the data on the FAFSA. Let's take a look at some possible reasons for an adjustment:

  • Recent death, disability or critical illness within the immediate family
  • Recent unexpected or drastic loss of family income
  • Income reflected on FAFSA is not reflective of typical family income
  • Unusually high education costs for siblings
  • Recent or imminent loss of child support or Social Security benefits
  • Unusually high medical or dependent care expenses
  • Student estrangement or legal independence from parents, or abandonment by parents
  • Parent incarceration or institutionalization
  • Natural disaster

While these circumstances can garner a full review, there are other circumstances that can warrant a negotiation of the type of aid offered within the package. The overall amount of your financial aid package likely will not change, but you can contact the college's financial aid office to politely review your options if:

  • Financial aid package contains mostly unsubsidized loans, and subsidized loan options might be available
  • Financial aid package does not include a work-study program, and student is interested in working
  • Offers from other colleges offer more favorable types of financial aid, such as merit scholarships, grants, or subsidized loans

How to Appeal

Let's say you meet one or more of the above criteria. What should you do? Contact the college's financial aid office as soon as possible. You can ask for a review anytime special circumstances arise, even during the school year. But financial aid options are more likely to be available in the spring and summer -- before school starts. Many colleges provide specific rules for appealing, which can be found on the school's website. If this is true for your school, you must follow those. Some schools even include an appeals deadline on their financial aid award letters.

You must provide appropriate documentation regarding your special circumstances. That might mean financial documents, certified court documents, legal affidavits, insurance statements, medical records, or other items. Gather these items first and keep copies of this documentation, as you will have to reapply for the adjustment each school year.

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