How to Appeal a Financial Aid Award

March 29, 2021

For students lacking inexhaustible higher education funds, finding out whether or not you are accepted into your dream college is only one battle in a broader, fast-unfolding conflict. Upon learning of one’s acceptance (congrats!), the locus quickly shifts to the other envelope/email before you—the financial aid letter.

A lower-than-expected offer can be a genuine dream-crusher, every bit as much as an outright rejection on the admissions end. While upsetting, there may still be actions to take that can lead to a better outcome. In the following blog, we will answer the pertinent questions surrounding this important topic including:

  • Should I appeal my financial aid letter?
  • Reasons to appeal a financial aid letter
  • How do I write a strong appeal?
  • Who decides your fate?
  • How often do college financial aid appeals work?

Let’s begin with how to evaluate whether or not you should enter the appeal process.

Should I appeal my financial aid letter?

Students and families truly want to ponder this one for more than just a few emotionally-charged minutes. Undoubtedly, it’s a blow to be handed a financial aid letter that is below expectations, but the first step is to circle back to the starting point and examine whether your expectations were realistic in the first place. Financial aid officers do in fact have the power to reverse previous decisions, but they will not be inclined to grant you serious consideration based solely on your natural human desire not to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for your teen’s education.

Reasons to appeal a financial aid letter

1) Your financial circumstances have significantly changed in the past year.

Tragic events like the death of a caregiver or hardships like a parent being laid off from their job are certainly events that should trigger an appeal on your family’s behalf. Other relevant game-changing financial events include: a massive medical bill not covered by insurance, the impact of a natural disaster, or increased costs related to care of a special needs or elderly relative.

2) You received a better offer from another college.

If one or more competing schools to which you applied offered a significantly better aid package, you may have a legitimate appeal on your hands. Of course, the only way this would be worth your time is if the lowball offer happened to come from your clear number one choice.

3) You made an error on your FAFSA

Some typos/miscalculations are more significant than others. In 1962, a lone missing hyphen in the computer code caused an 80 million dollar NASA spacecraft, Mariner I, to explode. An incorrectly entered income level ($600,000 instead of $60,000) could be just as disastrous on a personal level. If you messed up your original form, a financial aid officer can correct the error and may be able to offer you a significantly different expected family contribution (EFC) as a result.

How do I write a strong appeal?

This task will require some degree of parental assistance since adult financial information is at the heart of this process. However, it is preferable for the students to be the one making direct contact with college officials. The first contact should be a phone call to the college’s financial aid office to learn about the appeals process—it can vary from school to school.

In terms of tone, it is essential that your approach does not come across as haggling or a “negotiation.” Financial aid offices are dealing with thousands or even tens of thousands of accepted applicants and do not enjoy spending their time on cases where the applicants would simply prefer to pay a better price. The appeal process should be driven by actual need (e.g. you cannot attend this college without a reduction in cost). Be specific in your appeal about the aid you would need in order to be able to attend. Need-based financial aid is very much a formulaic process—financial info gets inputted and your EFC is the output. Therefore, your documentation (pay stubs, bills, etc.) will ultimately have to support your requested amount.

If you are appealing on the grounds that you received a better offer from another university, be sure to include an official copy of the aid award from that institution(s). No matter your angle, remember that this is not a time to be adversarial or demanding—you need them more than they need you.

Who decides your fate?

The federal government has bestowed each individual college’s financial aid officer with the authority to unilaterally make changes to applicants’ FAFSA and EFC. There is no other layer of appeal beyond this individual and you should take this as good news. No labyrinthine bureaucratic process is ahead of you—it’s just you and the institutional aid officer. For better or worse, their ruling is final.

How often do appeals work?

Statistically, the number of appeal letters written to American institutions of higher learning that result in award changes is not terribly encouraging—somewhere in the single digits. One recent survey conducted during the pandemic-fueled recession of 2020 found that 6% of appeals were successful for an average discount of $3,500. This number tends to be higher at private colleges with larger endowments than at public universities. Reporting for the New York Times back in 2014, Ron Lieber found that Occidental College increased aid offerings for one-third of those who appealed, while Cornell University and Sarah Lawrence College did so for roughly one-half of petitioners.

Looking for further positive news, if you shaved away the number of appeals that do not follow all or any of the previously stated rules, that percentage of successful aid-seekers would sharply rise. Legitimate, compelling, need-driven, well-documented financial aid appeals are an entirely different species than their “I want more because I want more” peers. Also, it is important to note that a successful appeal may not result in a straightforward discount. The revised package could include student loans, work study, or a combination of the two.

Final Thoughts

The decision to enter the financial aid appeal process should be done judiciously. Remember, this is not a negotiation at Crazy Eddie’s used Subaru lot or for a three-legged armoire at a flea market—this is an official process where a financial aid officer has been granted congressional power to make critical financial determinations. While the probability for success is uninspiringly low at many colleges, appeals that are sincere in nature, 100% truthful, and supported by ample documentation have the best odds to succeed.