Financial Aid Shortfalls

It’s mid-April and college decisions have been rendered. Those of you who have received good news from your “dream” school — Congratulations! For those of you who may have been disappointed by your dream school but received good news from other excellent colleges, congratulations to you, too. For those of you who may have to “settle” (many times a highly misleading word) for a so-called safety school … well … sometimes safeties can become the stuff of dream schools, once you go there and experience how wrong your original opinions about it may have been.

But (there always seems to be a but), sometimes there can even be a catch with getting into a dream school. The complications of financial aid shortfall can turn that dream school into a nightmare scenario. The key phrase is “financial aid shortfall.” A quick review:

There are two basic kinds of financial aid: need based and merit. Thinking back across your college application process, you no doubt recall the labor needed to fill in all those financial aid forms — the FAFSA, the CSS Profile, and maybe even a college’s own school-specific form. The purpose of those forms (the latter two being required by private colleges and universities) is to assess your family’s ability to pay the cost of attendance.

Along with your acceptance letter, you likely received a financial aid award letter. Sometimes these are “tentative,” to be finalized a bit later, but the point is to give you a ballpark idea of how much you will receive from grants, scholarships, and work study. Perhaps the most crucial part of that information is the amount of student loans you will be required to take on.

Be careful when you read these award letters. Many excited accepted applicants look immediately to the bottom line that shows the total of “aid,” which also includes those loans. This number can be very misleading because, obviously, your eager mind filters out, at least for the moment, the reality that perhaps a significant amount of that bottom-line number will have to be repaid … by YOU, starting soon after you graduate or, unfortunately, after you suspend or prematurely end your college career.

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Thus, be sure to consider the impact of those loans before you make a judgment about how good (or bad) your financial aid package is. Accordingly, what options are open to you if that judgment happens to be “bad”?

In doing research for this post, I came across some superior advice about how to appeal a financial aid package that has fallen short of your (and your family’s) needs. The advice comes from my College Confidential colleague, Sally Rubenstone, who also authors CC’s very popular Ask the Dean column. So, in a shameless act of promotion, here are Sally’s approaches that may help you deal with a shortfall in your financial aid award:

Appealing Merit Aid Awards

Question: My son has received acceptance to a number of schools (early action).  All but one have offered him scholarship dollars.  They are still quite expensive.  Is it appropriate to ask if they can improve on the offer? If so, how/when do you ask? Thank you

Sometimes it is possible to cajole college officials into offering more aid. But, as you do so, you will have to walk the fine line between being polite and being persistent.

Your odds will be greatest at those colleges where your son is an especially strong candidate.  At some schools, merit scholarships are controlled by the financial aid office and, at others, by the admission office. So you should start your appeal with the latter, although you may be quickly directed to financial aid. Here’s how to proceed:

– Make an appointment to speak to an admission officer, explaining that you want to discuss your son’s merit grant. As noted above, you may be directed to the financial aid office instead.  Unless you live within a reasonable drive of the college in question, this “meeting” will take place on the phone.

– You should be prepared to give the college a specific amount of money that you need. It’s not wise to simply say, “This won’t work as is. We need more.” Instead, you should determine how much more you require and request this amount.

– If possible, explain exactly why the current aid award won’t work.  You should have figures in front of you to back up this claim … rent or mortgage costs, utilities, car payments, health insurance or medical expenses, etc. … i.e., anything reasonable that eats into your income and assets (i.e., not the round-the-world second-honeymoon cruise that you’re booking as soon as Junior hits the dorm room!)

– Because merit awards are often heavily based on GPA and standardized test scores, if your son has gone up significantly in either area since submitting his application, be sure to say so.

– If your son has been awarded more money by another college with roughly comparable admission standards, you may be able to use this other grant to leverage an increase at similar schools.  If a less selective college has offered your son more money, the leverage ploy probably won’t get you very far, but if a more selective college … or a “competitor college” … has offered a bigger scholarship, your appeal may have some oomph. So it’s fine to mention other merit awards that might lure your son elsewhere if this college won’t cough up.

Don’t take “no” for an answer right off the bat. Keep plugging. But you also must act grateful for every crumb that’s been tossed your way so far and never entitled to more. As I pointed out at the start, this line can be very narrow.

Finally, these are merit awards that your son has received thus far. Has he also applied for need-based financial aid? If you qualify for need-based aid, you probably won’t get a financial aid “package” until the spring, once you’ve submitted your FAFSA and any other required forms.  For those students who qualify for financial aid, the merit grant may be just the tip of the iceberg and more money could be heading your way.

If your son did apply for need-based aid, you can hold off on your appeal until you see how you do in that department. But if you’re not expecting any need-based assistance, you can launch your merit-aid appeal right after the holidays. Admission and financial aid officers are going to be flat out with work from January through May, so there’s really not a “better” time to do this. Thus, you might as well get started early, when college budgets may still be a little flusher than they’ll be in the spring.

When to Explain Extenuating Circumstances to Financial Aid Offices?

Question: If we have a high EFC and extenuating financial circumstances should we send a letter to the financial aid office asking for special consideration before we receive their financial aid award or wait until we receive it?

You should definitely send an explanatory letter to colleges at the time that you apply for aid–or as soon thereafter as possible. Do not wait until you receive your aid award. If you have documentation that backs up your explanation (e.g., the nursing home bills you pay for Grandma), send copies with your letter.

However, like most things in the admissions world, the responses to your situation may be inconsistent. One college might take your extenuating circumstances into account; the next school might not.

So, once your child has received all aid awards, you should contact the financial aid offices that were not responsive to your needs and try to appeal … unless, of course, these are not colleges that your child wants to attend.

If a college–let’s call it “College A”– does not seem to consider your special needs but another school (“College B”) does, you may be able to leverage one aid award against the other, if you prefer A over B. However, this rarely works unless the admission standards at both schools are comparable, and–even then–you have to keep in mind that even similar schools can have dissimilar financial aid policies … or budgets. Even so, it can’t hurt to try.

Appealing an Aid Grant Based on New Class Rank

Question: Earlier this fall I was admitted to my first-choice college. I was given a nice scholarship of $6,000, but I did not get the largest scholarship of $8,500. According to the criteria put forth by this school, I meet all of the requirements except for my class rank. However, after the fall semester, I believe my rank will go up at least one spot, putting me in the top 10%. I will also have completed 9 hours (plus 9 from last year) of college credit this fall, while keeping a 4.0 grade average. I know it is possible for one to appeal a financial aid award, but is it possible for me to go to my university and ask them to reconsider the scholarship given my mid-year grades, without me seeming like I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth? And is it done?

Congratulations on being admitted to your first-choice college and for being awarded a scholarship as well. You can certainly appeal that award, and you’re already getting off to the right start. Contact the financial aid office at your university (e-mail is fine) and tell them almost exactly what you’ve told us and in the same way. That is, explain that you are thankful for the money you’ve been given and that you don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but do point out that your fall semester achievements may enable them to view you in a different light.

There is often flexibility in financial-aid budgets and policies, and not surprisingly, admission officials are more apt to favor students who appear appreciative rather than those who act entitled. Moreover, since you may be working with the same staff members for the next four years, it certainly would be wise for them to identify you in the former group, not the latter, from the get-go.

Make sure in your letter you clearly explain that you understand why you weren’t initially awarded the larger scholarship, but explain carefully, too, how your rank is improving. Offer thanks for the $6,000 you have been promised, but also offer all applicable reasons why an extra $2,500 would make a significant difference (“I am now working 15 hours/week, but would like to cut back during my first semester of college; My parents are shouldering unexpected medical expenses; My mother will be facing a job lay-off in the spring,” etc.).

Appeals like this are done all the time, and it sounds like you have solid grounds for yours. Don’t be shocked, however, if you don’t succeed. (For instance, there may be a rigid rule that requires aid decisions to be based on class rank at the time of application.) But do be persistent, and be sure to be grateful and polite.

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So, you can see that there are indeed ways to “negotiate” with a college’s financial aid office. The keys are respectfulness, honesty, and specific details. Add to those “timeliness.” Don’t procrastinate once you have evaluated your additional needs. Colleges’ financial aid budgets are finite and function on a kind of first-come-first-served basis. Be among the first to be served! Good luck to all of you with your financial aid quests.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles at College Confidential.