How to appeal college financial-aid decisions

The coronavirus and economic downturn will make it easier for parents to make a case for more money. But it also means the competition for aid will be greater.

  • By Cheryl Winokur Munk,
  • The Wall Street Journal
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Financial-aid award letters have arrived or will soon arrive for graduating high-school seniors and returning college students.

This year especially, more families may be experiencing substantially different economic circumstances than when they initially applied for aid. Families whose circumstances have changed—whether or not it is related to coronavirus—have the option to appeal their award.

Here’s what those considering an appeal need to do.

Understand what circumstances might warrant an appeal. Generally, most schools won’t reconsider a student’s aid package unless something major has changed since the initial filing, such as parental loss of a job, a significant drop in income, unusually high out-of-pocket medical expenses or atypical one-time expenses.

But even a family whose offer includes zero dollars in federal grants or institutional aid can appeal. The school might give a student more institutional aid, or it could decide a student is eligible for more federal student aid, including grants or work study, than was initially extended.

Because of the widespread economic impact of the pandemic, a family’s change in circumstances could be especially relevant this year given that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa, and the College Board’s CSS Profile for institutional aid both rely on data from a family’s 2018 tax returns. Even the CSS Profile, which asks for more recent supplemental information on a family’s finances, could now be out-of-date.

Schools that offer merit aid may also be willing to sweeten a deal, for recruiting purposes, amid potential coronavirus-induced declines in enrollment, so that is also worth asking about.

Make the appeal as soon as possible. Institutional funds for aid are limited, so don’t delay. Remember, this year in particular, competition could be greater, given that more than 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March.

Families who haven’t filled out a Fafsa or CSS Profile for the 2020-21 academic year, thinking perhaps they wouldn’t be eligible for aid, and who now would like to be considered, should call their prospective or current school to inquire about the school’s process for filing these forms. Be sure to ask how to provide updated information about the family’s financial circumstances.

Make the call even if a school’s website says the deadline for financial-aid forms has passed, says Erin Powers, director of marketing and communications for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Families have until June 30, 2021, to fill out the Fafsa to be eligible for aid during the 2020-21 academic year. The CSS Profile for the same academic year is active until Feb. 15, 2021, according to a College Board spokeswoman, though schools generally deplete their available funding over time.

Follow the school-specific processes. Each school has its own appeals process. The school’s financial-aid website should say what is required. Some schools ask that students provide signed statements explaining what changes have occurred, and any related documentation; others ask students to submit a form called a “report of special circumstances,” says Ms. Powers.

It is always a good idea to follow up with a phone call to a school’s financial-aid office since websites aren’t always up-to-date and families need to be sure they are following the proper procedure, says Scott Gibney, an educational consultant with Gibney College Solutions LLC in Newtown, Conn.

Families should provide whatever information and use whatever forms a school requests. If a free-form letter is allowed, one page is ideal, says Mr. Gibney, who recommends that appeals be fact-based, use bullet points and stay on subject. Don’t make demands, he adds, and always be respectful.

Provide relevant supporting documentation. Appealing families may be asked to provide documentation to support their request for additional aid. The type of documentation will vary depending on what has changed about the family’s financial circumstances, Ms. Powers says. Supporting documents can include things like bills, signed letters from caregivers or medical providers, court documents, termination letters, proof of unemployment benefits, final pay stubs and out-of-pocket repair costs after a natural disaster, she says.

Get online help. Educate To Career, a nonprofit that assists families with college and career planning, offers an online tool, the College Tuition Negotiator, to help families negotiate more effectively. The free tool helps users compare—by state, major and institution—data such as full-price tuition, average tuition paid, lowest estimated tuition paid, percent of students receiving grants and the average institutional grant size.

The Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation recently launched SwiftStudent, a free digital tool designed to help college students seeking adjustments to their financial-aid packages. The tool offers templates that address more than a dozen types of appeals. It could be useful for schools that lack a formal appeals process; students should always be sure to follow their school’s specific requirements before submitting an appeal.

Don’t just wait for an answer. While waiting to hear back on the appeal, which can take weeks, families should explore other ways of paying for college. Many students don’t think to apply for scholarships in the latter half of their senior year of high school, thinking these free-money options have all evaporated by spring. But some scholarships have later deadlines.

What’s more, many scholarship programs have extended their deadlines to give students more time to submit their applications, says Jan Smith, a financial-literacy expert at Educational Credit Management Corp., a nonprofit provider of free training and resources focused on financial education and college preparedness.

In addition, families could investigate private loans or other borrowing options such as a home-equity line of credit. The student also might consider taking a year off to work, or even choose a lower-cost community college or state school. Since a number of institutions may not be offering in-classroom instruction this fall, choosing a school where students can live at home and save money could be financially beneficial.

Families need to do what’s financially prudent for them—even if it means disappointing their student—to avoid burdensome debt.

“If you don’t get the money you were hoping for, you may need to make difficult choices,” Mr. Gibney says.

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