How to Appeal your Financial Aid Award

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College is expensive, and financial aid is meant to bridge the gap between how much you are expected to pay, and how much you can actually afford. The formulas colleges use to calculate financial aid awards are often esoteric, and they quite often seem to expect you to pay or borrow far more than you would like. 

Generally, all you can do is apply for financial aid and hope for the best, but in some circumstances you are able to appeal your financial aid awards. In this article, we’ll explore when this may be possible, how to go about it, and what, if anything, you can expect to receive. Let’s get started!

A Brief Note of Caution

While it is possible to appeal your financial aid awards, in most circumstances, you will not receive any additional funding. You should not pin your hopes of affording a particular college on a financial aid appeal. While this process can yield results, we do not want to get your hopes up unduly. Further, this only works for need-based aid; colleges will not reconsider merit aid awards through this process. With that in mind, let’s begin.

When you Can Appeal your Financial Aid Award

Every college has their own standards for appeal, but in general they have the same basic requirements. You are able to file an appeal under the following circumstances: 

  • There was an error on one of the forms you submitted, such as the FAFSA or CSS profile, and so the information the university based your award on was incorrect.
  • There has been a major change in your financial circumstances, due to a loss of income, death in the family, or other event. 
  • The school made a miscalculation of the resources you have available, and overestimated your ability to pay. 

This last one is the least accepted, unless there was a serious error on their part. This often results from misinterpretations of foreign holdings, including assets, investments, and property, since colleges are less experienced dealing with finances outside of the US. Note that this generally only matters for students who are US citizens but whole parents have assets outside the country; colleges rarely offer financial aid to international students.

Colleges will generally be more lenient if you made a mistake on your financial aid reporting forms, such as FAFSA, and may sometimes accept a change in circumstances. Colleges will not accept your own inability to pay; they have already factored this in, and believe that you can make up the difference through loans. This is not ideal for many, but we are unfortunately in no position to change it. 

Colleges will not give you more money just because another school offered you a better aid award. This can be useful, as we will explain in a later section, but on its own, comparing awards will not move the needle. Schools each have their own budget for financial aid, so what one institution is able to afford, another may not. Thus trying to play aid awards off one another is rarely effective. 

How to Appeal Your Award

If you believe your award may be appealed, you must first go to the school in question’s financial aid page. While there are similarities, many schools have their own unique quirks or requirements on top of the formula we present here. We will include the general case in this article, but always be certain of a school’s exact requirements before appealing an aid decision. 

General in order to appeal an aid award you will need to submit the following: 

  • An online form which identifies yourself, and allows them to find you in their system.
  • A letter which explains the reasons for your appeal, and why you believe they made a mistake in their award. 

This letter should generally be written previously, and then uploaded as a pdf. In the next section, we will cover the content of these letters, and how to go about writing one. Note that if you did make a mistake on your FAFSA, you must correct this before sending in a letter appealing the financial aid decision.

Student in a park. Boys in a university campus . Man with a phone.

The Appeal Letter

This letter needs to be as factually accurate and informative as possible, while also serving to convince aid officers that a mistake was made when calculating your financial need. This letter should be fully honest, and not delve too deep into irrelevant details. 

We recommend beginning with a brief formal introduction, introducing yourself and reason for writing. After this, you should get straight to the heart of the matter: why you believe you need or deserve more financial aid than you were offered initially. 

You should be clear when detailing circumstances. If a mistake was made and then corrected, what was it, and how much did it cause your resources to be overestimated by? These are the briefest letters to write, since a corrected mistake is generally easy to explain. 

If the mistake was on the college’s end, then you may need more description. This is because you need to convince aid officers that they have in fact made a mistake, and that they have miscalculated how much money you actually need. 

You should include as much detail as possible when doing this. Explain where the mistake occurred, and why your finances should not have been calculated as they were. Here is where aid offers from other colleges can be helpful, especially if they have similar financial aid policies. If two schools both guarantee to meet all demonstrated need, and have the same income cutoffs for aid, but offer you different amounts of aid, you can use that as evidence in your letter to one of the schools asking for reconsideration. 

If you are writing to give the college an update on your financial status, and how this change has impacted your ability to pay, make sure you include all relevant details. You want to be sure the college understands your circumstances, and has all of the information they need to properly calculate your aid amount. 

It may sometimes be necessary to include corroborating documents for this letter, such as new pay stubs. Different universities have different policies on what they will accept; check their sites before sending anything.

Final Thoughts

College is expensive, and becoming more so over time. This article is part of our continuing effort to help students and parents understand their options for financial aid, through application, strategies, need blind schools, and merit scholarships. We hope that you find this information useful, and that it provides some degree of clarity for your own efforts to navigate this process.

While the task to apply to college can seem herculean, you don’t have to do it alone. We have a depth of experience advising students and parents on both the grander strategy and minutiae of college applications, and helping them make sense of a complex system seemingly built only to vex you. If you have further questions, or want to hear how we can help with your unique circumstances, schedule a free consultation today. We’re always happy to hear from you. 

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