At this time of year, many students are concerned about how they can select the best college for them from among the colleges that have accepted them. Before making that choice, students should ensure that they have received the best possible financial aid offer from each of those colleges.

When a student is accepted by a college, he or she can expect to receive a financial aid offer letter with it or a short time afterwards. The student may not receive sufficient financial aid to enable him or her to afford the college even when other funds available to the family are added to it. In such cases, especially if the college is the student’s “dream” school, families should be aware that the initial offer isn’t necessarily the school’s best and final offer, especially if it’s private colleges. To receive its best offer, an appeal is necessary. 

The worst that can happen to admitted students who appeal is that the college’s financial aid office will decline to improve their offer of aid. Nevertheless, before submitting an appeal, students and parents should know how the process works. Success depends largely on how the appeal is presented to the college. 

Colleges use the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to determine how much financial aid an applicant is eligible to receive. The FAFSA includes tax information from the “prior-prior” year. Families completing the FAFSA for the 2023-24 academic year, for example, will be evaluated using the Tax Year 2021 forms that they filed with the IRS. 

The U.S. Education Department (ED) uses FAFSA data to calculate an applicant’s Student Aid Index, or SAI (formerly referred to as the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC). As determined by the ED’s formula, the SAI is the amount of money that that the student, and their family if they are a dependent, is expected to pay toward the cost of college. This means that, by the time a college is putting together its financial aid offer for an accepted student, at least two years have elapsed since the FAFSA’s tax information was reportable. Events may have transpired during that time that adversely affected a family’s ability to pay for college. These events cause what are called “special circumstances”.

Although a student may be able to appeal their financial aid offer simply because they cannot afford to attend the school without more aid, an appeal is more likely to succeed if it cites at least one special circumstance

Special Circumstances

Special circumstances are either adverse events that have occurred or a new factor that differentiates the student from other applicants, such as a disability. The most common special circumstances cited in appeals are:

  • Death of a dependent student’s parent.
  • Disability of the student since the FAFSA was filed.
  • Job loss or substantial decrease in income. 
  • Divorce or separation of a dependent student’s parents.
  • Special needs or disabled siblings.
  • Large unreimbursable medical or dental expenses.
  • Catastrophic loss such as damage from a natural disaster or fire.
  • The termination of child support, Social Security benefits, or alimony payments. 
  • Change in the student’s marital status.
  • Books, material, or other costs well beyond the standard amount allocated in the college’s Cost of Attendance (COA). 
  • Dependency override. (A dependency override is a status granted by a school’s financial aid office that allows an applicant to exclude their parent’s information from their FAFSA even if they were originally considered dependent on them).

When To Appeal

The financial aid offices of colleges are extremely busy just prior to May 1, the enrollment deadline for most schools. If a student is to appeal for additional aid, they are advised not to wait until near the deadline if possible, especially if they seek merit-based aid. This does not leave the student much time between their receipt of a college’s financial aid offer and, say, a mid-April submission, so they should start the appeal process ASAP.

Colleges know that bad things can happen to people at any time. A financial calamity can occur after May 1 to a student already enrolled in their school. Students should ask the financial aid office if they may appeal at any time of year. The office may sympathize with the reason for the appeal and want to help. It is best to appeal for additional aid as soon as an adverse event occurs. For example, if a parent loses their job, a student should appeal for more aid as soon as they have documentation.

A successful appeal based on a special circumstance usually lasts for only one year. If it still applies, the student may need to appeal again in future years.

How to Appeal

There is a generalized process for filing appeals, as summarized below: 

Research: Students should investigate the college’s website for information on the appeals process or call the financial aid office to ask about it. The appeals process might be referred to as a professional judgment review, a special circumstances review, or a financial aid appeal. 

Verify: Compare the SAI in the award letter to the college’s own Net Price Calculator, which should be on their website. If the two amounts disagree widely, a student may wish to submit an appeal on this basis. 

Detail: Provide details concerning a special circumstance(s) affecting the ability to pay the college’s costs. Although it’s possible to appeal for more aid on the sole basis that the student cannot afford to attend the college otherwise, a special circumstance is more likely to result in a successful appeal.

Compare: Before submitting an appeal, a student should upload one of their offer letters from a college to one of the free online databases of award letters. This will enable the student to compare their offer letters from colleges to those of other students who were accepted by the same colleges.  The student’s offer may be in line with other aid offers with similar credentials, or they may not. If not, this is a good point to mention, but not emphasize, in the appeal letter. It shouldn’t be the sole basis of an appeal, but it is likely to help.

Don’t Negotiate: Students should be wary of presenting their appeal as if it were a negotiating ploy or ultimatum. Financial aid administrators won’t engage in the negotiation of  the terms under which a student will agree to enroll.

Brevity: The letter should not be more than one page and should emphasize the financial impact of the special circumstance(s) on the family. Multiple special circumstances should be presented in the order of the severity of the impact. Be specific concerning dates. State that the events were due to factors beyond the family’s control. 

Amount: There is a dichotomy of opinion as to whether the appellant should request a specific amount of money. One school of thought is that the letter should not ask for a specific amount of money but let the school decide how much is needed based on the letter’s description of the financial impact of the special circumstance(s). According to this theory, asking for a specific amount may result in less aid than otherwise might be awarded because many colleges will increase their aid offer by the amount of the SAI’s decline, which may be more than the amount requested. An alternate approach is to request a specific amount and inform the college that, if the request is granted, the student will definitely enroll in their school. The reviewer of the appeal will then be able to approach the administrator with a fixed amount. This factor alone may result in a positive decision if the college. But the amount requested should not be compared to another college’s offer, as in “If you give me $X in additional aid to match College Y’s offer, I will enroll in your school”. 

Communications: All emails, letters, and phone calls from a student to a college regarding an appeal should be polite and deferential to a fault. There is no recourse if the college’s financial aid office denies the appeal. 

Documents: Third-party documentation of the special circumstance(s) should be enclosed with the letter of appeal. This may include layoff notices, medical or dental bills, bank and/or brokerage statements, relevant receipts, and letters from people who can attest to the family’s situation. Ideally, these letters should be from people in authority who are not related to the family, such as teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, doctors, attorneys, accountants, and clergy. 

Forms: Complete and submit any forms required by the college in the appeals process.   

Mail: Mail the letter or forms with documentation to the financial aid office by certified mail with return reply requested. A student may wish to send a modified version of the same letter, without the promise to enroll, to every private college by which the student has been accepted and has received a financial aid offer. 

Email: It’s wise for a student to send an email to the college’s financial aid office that briefly describes the letter of appeal. In the email, the student should request a time to speak with an aid officer about the status of the appeal. The college’s policies may prohibit such conversations, but an appellant shouldn’t rely solely on the appeal letter if other opportunities to communicate are available.

If the Appeal Is Approved

For most colleges, the appeals process is largely formulaic and data-driven. If a student’s financial aid appeal is approved, it will often be implemented by making a change to the FAFSA data, which the financial aid administrator is authorized to do by the ED. For example, if a parent has lost their job, the administrator may reduce the income amount that was used in the original FAFSA. This will generate a new SAI using the ED’s standard financial aid formula. The new SAI will yield a new amount for demonstrated need, which is the difference between the COA and the SAI. This, in turn, may result in an improved financial aid package commensurate with the reduced income.

The college financial aid administrator can also implement adjustments through a change to the COA. Changing the COA is more common when the student’s SAI is zero because the SAI cannot be a negative number.

If the Appeal Is Denied

If the final amount of financial aid offered by a college doesn’t work for the student, they shouldn’t resort to excessive borrowing to come up with the money to attend that particular school. Since students should apply to 8 to 10 colleges that are in various price ranges, they’re likely to have been admitted to colleges less expensive than their “dream” school. They should plan to attend one of these schools.