If your financial aid offer left you a little light in the pockets, don't worry. The game's not over yet. Students can appeal their financial aid offers and potentially get more money than they were originally offered if they play their cards right.
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The fastest and easiest way to land more cash is to give the school a good reason why you need it, says Chris Pesotski, director of student financial services for the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
"There are two kinds of appeals. There's the 'I just need more money' appeal and then there's the 'I have a really good reason, there's a change in my situation' appeal," says Pesotski. "At our school, we award the second group 100% of what they need. ... The first group gives us an opportunity to open up a dialogue about finances with the family, but we usually don't increase the award."
Notify School of Change in Income
The most successful financial aid appeals are filed by families that have an outstanding fiscal circumstance, such as high medical bills, that isn't taken into account on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, or by families that experience a sharp fiscal change between the time they filed the FAFSA and the time that the student will attend school, according to Pesotski.
Geri Anderson, associate vice president and provost of the Colorado Community College System, says students should keep in mind that the FAFSA form only includes financial information from the year before the student applies to school. That means for students entering school in the 2009-to-2010 school year, financial aid packages will be determined based on income tax returns from 2008.
"If a person lost their job or their parents had been moved to a part-time position so they've had a reduction in income, those are good reasons to file a financial aid appeal," says Anderson. "If a (family) has gone through a divorce or had a spouse pass away or had a significant illness in the family, anytime there's a change in income or status, those appeals are usually very successful."
Research Cost of Attendance
Reecy Aresty, a financial aid consultant and author of "How to Pay for College Without Going Broke," adds that if students haven't had a drastic monetary change between FAFSA and school time, they may be able to land more aid simply by researching what factors go into the school's estimated total cost of attendance and whether those figures are realistic given the family's financial and geographic situation.
"If a student lives in California and they're going to school in Florida and the school's average travel allowance is $600 per year, the student could ask the school to increase that to, say, $1,500 a year to accommodate for the extra distance," says Aresty. "Students should always ask for something specific, like an increase in travel allowance or a winter clothing allowance if they live somewhere warm and are attending a school somewhere cold. They should never just ask for more money."
Aresty advises students to ask the financial aid office for a breakdown of their total cost of attendance and to research what percentage of students at that school have their total financial need met. Some aid offices freely offer this information, but students can also obtain a ballpark figure for their school at Collegeboard.com or by checking out financial aid guidebooks, such as the "College Money Handbook 2009." Once students know how the school determines its cost of attendance and how many enrollees receive sufficient aid awards, they can use those figures to explain where their aid package comes up short to lobby for more funds.
Write Effective Proposals
"I write a one-page letter, two or three paragraphs maximum, and have the student sign it," says Aresty. "The letter usually starts out with a phrase like, 'This university has a proud tradition of meeting 100% of student need and unfortunately I've been left out in the cold. ...' Then I ask for an increase in this area or that."
If students can't find a specific area where they need more aid, they could try a last-ditch tactic of pitting one school's aid package against another, says Pesotski. But don't hold your breath. While some schools do re-evaluate aid awards for academically and athletically outstanding students based on offers from other institutions, many dismiss these appeals altogether.
"We don't run around matching other institutions' awards, but if a highly sought-after student says 'X, Y and Z universities gave me so much money. Can you match that?' We'll look to see if there's an actual cost differential," he says. "Before we hand out more money, we need to make sure that the offers are based on comparing apples to apples."
Ask Nicely, Be Timely
Once students know why they need more aid, the next step is to ask for it soon. While Pell grants and Stafford loans are available year-round, other awards, such as the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, work-study positions and certain school-sponsored awards, are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis.
"We don't consider any (aid appeal) too late, but we have limited resources, and students should let us know there's a problem as quickly as possible," says Mary Ellen Duffy, director of financial aid at Albright College in Reading, Pa. "We request that all families looking for more aid put their requests in writing. (Students) should also be prepared to verify the reason they're asking for a bigger award."
First, Duffy says, students should start the appeals process by contacting their school's aid office and asking for any forms required for a financial aid appeal or professional judgment. In addition to a letter outlining why they need more money, students should also have documentation such as copies of medical bills or proof of income reduction on hand in case the aid office asks to see it. The time it takes to process appeals varies from one school to another. However, Aresty advises students to follow up with a short letter if they haven't heard back within a few weeks and to end the deal with a handwritten thank you card regardless of the appeal's outcome.
Investigate Other Options
Should an aid appeal end in rejection, other options exist, such as awards offered through other college departments, private scholarships with later deadlines and alternative aid programs like tuition discounts, says Anissa Agne, director of student financial aid for the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Fla.
"A student can look for scholarships offered by their dean's office, academic major or concentration, student life organizations and the university's (fundraising) foundation," she says.
Agne also advises students to stay in touch with their financial aid office in case last minute awards become available. This occurs when other students decide to attend other schools or if they don't accept work-study positions.
"A lot of schools have a wait list for things like work-study, so keep in contact with your school's (aid office)," she says. "It's always worthwhile to let them know you're interested in additional funding."