So many of life’s purchases, both large and small, involve negotiations. Everything from the amount we pay for a car, to the final price tag on a home, to what we pay for a gym membership involves some level of haggling or back and forth.
Yet when it comes to college tuition — one of the largest debts many people ever take on — very few applicants consider appealing a financial aid award to obtain more money from their school of choice to cover the cost of attendance.
Perhaps it remains a little-known fact that financial aid packages can be appealed. Or perhaps incoming students are uncertain how the process works and opt not to bother. Whatever the case, the fact is you may be leaving thousands of dollars on the table if your financial aid package is less than adequate and you don’t appeal.
“I worked with a family that received an additional $20,000 a year in aid because they appealed,” said former university administrator Sabrina Manville, co-founder of Edmit, a company that helps families make smarter decisions with regard to college finances, including assisting with appeals.
“That large of an amount is unusual,” continued Manville. “The school made a mistake in the calculations in that case. But the average customer I worked with last year got an additional $5,600.”
The key point here, says Manville, is that if your heart is set on a particular school but the financial aid the school is offering makes it difficult to attend, initiating an appeal could help make the school more affordable.
The Factors That Determine Your Financial Aid Award
When a college or university develops your financial aid package, they do so based on a few different pieces of information about you — including your expected financial contributions, your merit, your achievements, and your competitiveness.
“The school is looking at what will make attending affordable for you and what’s going to incentivize you to come,” said Manville. “And they’re thinking about what other offers you might have on the table.”
When weighing all of the information just outlined, often a college will get the financial aid award wrong, resulting in a price of attendance that’s simply not within your reach financially, or that’s not compelling enough based on other offers you have on table, explained Manville.
In such a case, an appeal could very well be your best course of action.
“An appeal is your chance to go back to the school and ask if there’s any additional money available to make it more attractive for you to go there,” said Manville.
- Related: How to Compare Financial Aid Offers
How to Appeal Your Financial Aid Package
It’s important to understand that the financial aid appeal process varies from school to school. Some may have a very strict or formal process by which they’ll review a financial aid appeal, one that may require completing specific forms. In other cases, it may be a more informal procedure, which could simply entail having a conversation with a financial aid officer or writing a financial aid appeal letter.
The first step is to find out what the school’s approach to an appeal is. You can begin by checking its website (Google the school’s name and “financial aid appeal,” suggests Manville). You could also email the school’s financial aid office to find out what the guidelines are. Yet another option is to try calling the school to find out what the process may entail.
“All schools, even the large ones, should have people you can talk to if you have a question about your financial aid,” said Manville. “Usually it’s the financial aid office.”
What Should Your Appeal Include?
When it comes to making the case for more financial aid, your appeal should first and foremost outline any changes in your financial situation that may have occurred since you initially completed your FAFSA application, said Manville.
Perhaps a parent lost a job and is unable to help you pay for college as expected, or you’ve had a significant health expense arise that’s interfering with your ability to pay. All of that information needs to play prominently in your appeal.
“You could also compare the school’s financial aid award to the other options you have on the table, making clear how the offer from the current school makes it hard for you to choose them,” Manville noted. “Ultimately, it’s about getting in touch with the school and making your case. Talk about why you really want to go the school, but why the current award is making it hard.”
Here’s the kicker that so many students fail to realize: Most schools are open to these conversations because it’s their job to enroll students. What’s more, they care about enrolling students who truly want to be there.
To that end, Manville also recommends that students talk about why they really want to go to the school in question when making an appeal. This will underscore that your application was simply not a shot in dark and that attending will be very meaningful. The school will love that.
“You don’t have to restate the entire application essay, but a little reminder about why you’re excited about the school is great,” said Manville.
One last tip: If there’s any updated academic information that might help your case, it’s also important to include that.
Don’t Pay Full Price
While there’s growing awareness that it’s possible to appeal a financial aid package, Manville says most people still don’t realize it’s possible.
But do yourself a favor and approach a college’s price tag with the same savvy consumer attitude you would bring to any other big-ticket purchase.
“You apply to college not knowing what the price will be,” says Manville, “But the price that comes back is not the end of the conversation if it’s a school you really want to go to. Colleges are doing more and more discounting and fewer and fewer people are paying the price listed on website.”
While the increasing trend of colleges discounting their sticker price may be worth a post of its own, for now the key takeaway is that appealing your financial aid package is definitely worth your time. Because any reduction in your final bill means less debt to contend with upon graduation.
“I always tell families that if there’s a gap between what you can afford and what you’ve been awarded in financial aid, an appeal is definitely worth a try,” concluded Manville. “You’ve already been accepted to the school, so they’re not going to rescind that acceptance.”
Mia Taylor is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. She has worked for some of the nation’s best-known news organizations, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the San Diego Union-Tribune.
More by Mia Taylor: