How to Appeal Your College Financial Aid Package

Freelance Writer

Congratulations! You were accepted to one of your top-choice colleges—only you’re not celebrating quite so hard, because a meager financial aid package has you feeling less than triumphant.

If your financial aid package isn't up to snuff, don't panic. It is possible to appeal your financial aid award to get more assistance. Though financial aid appeals have limited success, you have nothing to lose; a college will not rescind your acceptance because you asked for more money.

Here are eight tips for appealing for more college financial aid:

  1. Check whether the college has a procedure for appealing financial aid. It may require certain paperwork or have deadlines you need to follow. If you don't abide by these rules, you risk losing even the chance to be reconsidered. Some colleges may provide this information on their website. If they don't, call the financial aid office.
  2. Research the college’s financial aid policies and trends. All schools approach financial aid differently. For example, if a college doesn't offer merit awards in the first place, don't bother asking for one. (The vast majority of schools do give merit awards, but some highly selective colleges, including the Ivies, don't.) Other helpful information for deciding whether to appeal your financial aid and for how much are the average award amounts the college distributed in years past. (You can find this data on the CollegeXpress school profile pages or on websites like COLLEGEdata or College Board.)
  3. Find out your school-specific expected family contribution (EFC). This is the dollar amount you are expected to pay for college. Your EFC may vary between schools, which sometimes calculate them differently. (Many colleges use the results of the FAFSA’s Federal Methodology to determine your EFC, but some schools also use an Institutional Methodology EFC as determined by the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. You can learn more about the differences here.) In any case, you should know your EFC results before appealing any financial aid award. For example, if your EFC is $40,000, tuition is $50,000, and the school gave you $10,000 in financial aid, then they’ve been fairly reasonable and probably won’t budge in their financial aid package—unless you can come up with a reason the EFC is wrong…
  4. Focus on any special circumstances affecting your EFC. This is extremely important: many schools won't alter your aid package unless there was a unavoidable change in financial circumstances, such as a parent losing a job or receiving a pay cut, medical bills for an elderly grandparent or special needs child, a natural disaster, etc. This type of information might not have been taken into consideration on the FAFSA, but financial aid officers are willing to do so. Appeals based on special circumstances may be referred to as a "Professional Judgment Review” or "Special Circumstances Review.” Keep in mind that you must be able to provide documentation. Also keep in mind that schools don’t care about difficulty affording college based on discretionary spending, e.g., high mortgage costs, car payments, and so on.
  5. Leverage competing offers. Some schools will revamp your financial aid package if you received a better offer from a similar or more high profile college. If your school is willing to do this, share in writing the competing offer you received. If the college wants you badly enough, they'll attempt to match—or maybe even exceed—the other school’s financial aid offer. A handful of top schools, like Carnegie Mellon and Cornell, widely advertise the fact that they do everything in their power to match competing offers.
  6. Ask for a change to your cost of attendance (COA). The financial aid office can alter your COA (aka the cumulative average annual cost of attending a given college, including tuition, room, board, and other expenses) if you have special expenses above the norm. For example, perhaps you need more money to accommodate a disability, or your specific major requires you purchase special equipment.
  7. Take emotion out of the equation. Remember that schools are businesses, and they have a set budget they need to stick to. You have to present a compelling, logical case for why you deserve more money than they initially thought. Financial aid officers will likely be immune to sob stories, threats, or bragging—they've heard it all before. Instead, focus on being as specific as possible about how much you need and why need you it, and provide documentation backing up your claim.
  8. Try again next year. If you’re denied an appeal your freshman year, consider appealing for more financial aid the following year, especially if your family’s financial situation changes. Or if your financial circumstances change in the middle of a semester, there is a chance that the school could reassess your need for that year.

Reports on the rate of success of financial aid appeals vary. A survey from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the College Board found that 5% of public colleges and 10% of private colleges adjusted financial aid in response to a family's stated inability to pay. Meanwhile, only 1% of public colleges and 2% of private colleges frequently or always adjust financial aid packages to reflect other colleges’ offers.

It certainly depends on the school, but even the slightest chance of increasing your financial aid package makes it worth a try. To increase your chances even more, make sure to follow the suggestions above. (And if after all this you’re still trying to make tuition ends meet, take a look at these tips for what to do when you can't make your tuition payment.)

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »