How to appeal college financial aid decisions due to coronavirus

If your household income has changed, filing a financial aid appeal might be a smart move. (iStock)

Most college students have already received their financial aid award letters for next year. If you’re one of them, it doesn’t mean your aid is set in stone. In fact, if your finances have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic (or any other change of circumstance), you may actually have a case for more assistance.

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To make that case, you’ll need to file an appeal with your school’s financial aid office. Here’s how that process works.

When should I appeal my college financial aid?

Financial aid awards are based on need, so if your household’s income changes, the amount of aid you qualify for will likely change, too. Because of this, it’s important to file an appeal anytime your financial circumstances change at home.

Here are just a few examples of events that might necessitate a financial aid appeal:

  • Job loss or income reduction
  • Divorce or loss of a parent
  • Sudden large expenses, like medical bills
  • A natural disaster (like a hurricane or the coronavirus pandemic)

You also may consider appealing your aid if a school is offering less than another one you’ve applied to. According to Charlie Javice, founder and CEO of financial aid resource Frank, most colleges are willing to compete with each other — especially if they’re similar in quality.

“Universities have a formula to financially break even,” Javice said. “A university makes more money if a student attends and doesn't make any money if a student rejects acceptance.”

Of course, filing a financial aid award appeal does not automatically mean you’ll get more money, but as Javice explains, it’s always worth a try. “Over 20 percent of financial aid dollars are set aside in college budgets for students who appeal their aid,” she said.

FINANCIAL AID AWARD LETTERS: WHAT TO KNOW AND HOW TO COMPARE

How do I appeal my financial aid reward?

Your first step is to contact your school’s financial aid office. They can give you the paperwork you’ll need to file your appeal. According to Mark Kantrowitz, vice president of research at SavingforCollege.com, most schools will also request a letter detailing the situation.

“In the appeal letter, summarize the special circumstances and the financial impact on your ability to pay for college,” Kantrowitz said. “For example, mention the decrease in your income, whether from job loss or a pay cut. It is best to use a bulleted list, with one special circumstance per bullet.”

You’ll also need to provide documentation of your financial change. This might mean:

  • A pink slip or layoff notice
  • Pay stubs showing the reduced income
  • Proof of unemployment benefits
  • Bills showing sudden or emergency expenses
  • Court documents or divorce filings

If you’re mailing the documents, do so carefully, and make sure to follow up.

“Send the letter with delivery confirmation or by certified mail — return receipt requested — so you have proof of receipt,” Kantrowitz said. “About a week after you mail the letter, call the financial aid office to confirm receipt — sometimes the letters end up at the wrong office — and to ask if they need any additional information.”

HOW TO COMPARE FINANCIAL AID OFFERS

Alternative options

If your appeal is unsuccessful, look for scholarships you may be eligible for or consider a private student loan to help cover the remaining costs of your schooling. Credible makes it easy to compare private student lenders and check rates and terms without affecting your credit score.

These types of loans aren’t based on your FAFSA or financial need, so qualifying may be easier than going through your financial aid office.

If you do opt for private student loans, take out only what you need (a student loan calculator can help here) and always shop around, as rates and terms vary widely between lenders. You can use a tool like Credible to comparison shop without hurting your credit score.

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