After months of waiting, it finally arrives in the mail—a thick envelope from your dream college containing your acceptance letter. After you finish your victory dance, you go back and read the details, including what financial aid you received. As you review your award letter, your heart sinks; there’s no way you can cover the cost. Before you panic, you should know that financial aid offer letters aren’t final; it is possible to request more financial assistance.
Your award letter will show you what grants and scholarships you’re currently eligible for and how much of the cost you’re expected to pay yourself. If the net price—the amount you’re expected to cover out of your savings or with student loans—causes serious shock, know that many schools are open to financial aid appeals. The college will review each appeal on a case-by-case basis and sometimes issue additional gift aid to reduce your out-of-pocket expenses. To appeal your financial aid offer, follow these steps:
Highlight unusual financial circumstances
When you fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the form will prompt you to enter information about your family’s income. However, the FAFSA doesn’t use your latest information. It asks for your family’s tax return from two years prior. For example, the FAFSA for the 2021–2022 academic year asks for income listed on your family’s 2019 tax return. A lot can change in two years. If the coronavirus pandemic impacted your family, for instance, you may have experienced significant changes in your financial situation and may be eligible for additional aid. According to the office of Federal Student Aid, the following situations are considered unusual circumstances and may allow you to qualify for additional funding:
- You had emergency medical or dental expenses not covered by insurance.
- Your parent lost their job.
- Your family had significant changes in assets or income.
- Your family has tuition expenses at an elementary or secondary school.
Gather additional documentation
When appealing a college’s financial aid offer, you need to make a convincing argument. It’s not enough to say a family member lost a job or you racked up medical debt; you have to prove it. Before reaching out to the financial aid office, gather any documents that support your claims. For example, if you were hospitalized, you could get a copy of the hospital bill or a letter signed by your doctor detailing your condition. If your parents were laid off from their jobs, get a copy of their employment termination letter or unemployment benefits. Make copies of any documents you have, and don’t send the originals with your appeal—send the copies! Schools likely won’t be able to return the documents, so you want to ensure you have the originals on hand in case you need them again.
Contact the school’s financial aid office
To appeal a financial aid decision, you must contact your selected college directly. Every school has its own process for handling appeals, so you want to check what’s required to get the financial aid office to re-evaluate your situation. When you reach out to the financial aid office, tell the representative you had a change in financial circumstances and would like to appeal your school aid letter. The representative will give you any necessary forms you need and deadlines to keep in mind. When speaking with the financial aid office, remember to be polite. Their decision is final; there’s no way to appeal with the US Department of Education or Federal Student Aid, so it’s in your best interest to be pleasant and understanding with the decision-makers.
Related: Financial Aid Terms You Need to Know
Complete your forms/write a financial aid appeal letter
Some schools have specific forms students need to complete to appeal financial aid offers, while others have a more informal approach. If the school doesn’t have a form to complete, you can write your own financial aid appeal letter instead. Your letter should contain the following information:
- Why you want to attend that college: Schools want to know you’re enthusiastic about attending and how you’d be an asset to the college community. Highlight why you want to go to that school and why you think you’d be a good fit.
- Specific changes to your finances: The letter should explain how your financial situation has changed and why you need additional aid. Be as specific as possible. For example, if you had significant medical bills, you could write, “I required medical care. The health care provider was out of my insurance network, so I had to pay the entire cost myself. Because of that medical emergency, I had to pay $15,000 to the hospital, emptying out my college fund.”
- New achievements: If you have any new academic, athletic, or artistic achievements since you originally applied, include that information in your letter. If you received larger scholarships from other colleges, it could help to include that information too. The school may consider those details and give you additional merit-based aid.
Close the letter by emphasizing how much you want to go to the college but that you can’t afford to do so with the current aid package offer.
Follow up with your financial aid contact
After mailing your financial aid appeal, wait a full week. You may be anxious, but it’s important to give the college time to review your request. After a week goes by, you can follow up by phone or email with the financial aid office. Confirm that they received your information and ask if they need any other documentation. If all goes well, you’ll receive a new offer letter with updated financial aid awards.
If your appeal fails, don’t immediately turn to loans
Unfortunately, financial aid appeals aren’t always successful. Before taking on substantial student loan debt to attend your dream school, ask yourself these questions:
- How much does it cost to attend?
- What will my student loan payments be after college?
- What is the average entry-level salary for my chosen career?
- What are my other financial goals?
- What are my alternative choices?
Be realistic and do your research; some tools allow you to view starting salaries by school, and you can use a student loan calculator to determine your payments. Remember, if you take out too many loans and run into financial issues in the future, you may not be able to pay your bills, potentially forcing you to apply for student loan forbearance to avoid ending up in default.
Borrow only the minimum you need to attend school. If you need more money than your selected college offers, apply for outside scholarships or grants, and consider attending a cheaper school. It may not be your first choice, but taking on less debt can minimize the financial stress you face after graduation.
The financial aid offer letter you initially receive in the mail doesn’t have to be the end all, be all on your path to your dream school. If you really want your award package appealed, put in the effort to do it the right way, and more than likely, the financial aid office at your college will try to help you to the best of their abilities. Good luck!
Learn more about scholarships, grants, loans, and other ways to pay for college in our Financial Aid section.