It’s spring of the senior year, and your daughter has received the best news. “Congratulations! We are pleased to inform you that….” She breaks into a huge smile, followed by tears of joy as she learns she has just been admitted to the school of her dreams. As you look at the next page of her letter, you feel like crying too, but for entirely different reasons. The financial aid award isn’t close to making her dream school affordable.
So what should you do? The only remedy available to you at this late date is the Letter of Appeal that you’ll need to send well in advance of National Decision Day on May 1, the last day you can leave a deposit at the school your child will attend.
What should you write in a persuasive Letter of Appeal?
How to appeal a financial aid award
1. First, compare the financial aid offers from all her colleges.
You must understand your net price at the schools your child most wants to attend. The net cost is the total annual sticker price at the school minus any grants and scholarships listed in the financial aid award.
Do not subtract loans or student employment since these aren’t gift aid. Be sure you understand the total cost of attendance (COA) at each school — tuition, fees, room, board, books, personal expenses, and transportation to and from campus. Then do the simple arithmetic to learn how much each school will actually cost:
2. Call the financial aid office
Next, if you decide that you want to go ahead with an appeal at one or more schools, call the financial aid offices and ask what their process is. Some will send you a form to complete; others will ask you to send them a detailed request in writing. If they allow a letter, I recommend you send it as a pdf attachment to an email addressed to the financial aid office of each college.
Strongest reasons to appeal a financial aid award
Simply wanting more money, even needing more money, is not going to win your appeal. So what are the most convincing circumstances that could lead to a favorable adjustment to the award?
1. Loss of job/income.
The most powerful reason to appeal is that there has been a loss of a job or another source of income since the FAFSA and CSS Profile were submitted. If this loss of income was due to a circumstance beyond the family’s control, it will carry considerable weight in the appeal process. What will be expected from you is the date of job loss, the reason for the job loss, the amount your earnings have been reduced, an explanation of when employment will be resumed if known, and what the new expectation of earnings will be. It is best to attach additional documentation corroborating these circumstances or to state that such documentation can be provided if necessary.
2. Increase in non-discretionary expenses.
Family spending can skyrocket due to serious injury or illness, an elderly family member needing to move into your home, or natural disasters like fires, floods, or earthquakes where there is significant damage to home or property. If any of these events have occurred, they should be documented in the letter of appeal using actual dollar amounts.
3. Better offer from another school.
Suppose another institution has offered a more generous aid package that could impact the decision of where your child will enroll. In that case, you should bring this to the attention of the financial aid administrator. Best if the competing institution is similar to the one to which you are sending your appeal (e.g., NYU and Boston University, Creighton and Loyola Maryland, Wesleyan and Vassar). Be prepared to share a copy of the competition’s award letter.
Once your child has been admitted, she has more leverage than you might think. The institution wants her to enroll because its yield — the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll — is an important indicator of an institution’s power in the marketplace.
Writing a financial aid appeal letter
Here are some important guidelines to follow as you write your letter:
• It is perfectly acceptable for parents, rather than students, to communicate directly with the financial aid administrator. Not the case with college applications and essays, but definitely the case with financial aid negotiations.
• Identify the applicant by name, date of birth, high school, whether a first-year applicant or transfer and the application round (e.g., early decision, early action, regular decision). Identify yourself as well.
• Show appreciation for your child’s admission into the institution and the financial aid they have offered.
• Title your letter as “Letter of Appeal.” In the first brief paragraph, make it clear that you would like them to review the offer of financial aid in light of the information you are about to document in this letter.
• Your arguments should be concise. The more your case can be explained by numbers, dates, and events beyond your control, the more persuasive it will be. More facts, less poetry.
• Be clear about what you can afford to pay. If $6,500 more in institutional grants will make your child’s first choice affordable, and if that is the difference in net price between the two competing institutions, state this clearly. Tell them if they know how much more they need to sweeten the pot to ensure your child’s enrollment.
• In your closing paragraph, thank them for the time they are putting in on your behalf. Explain that because of family finances, the cost of college is a significant factor in the final decision of where she can attend. Express clearly that their institution is your child’s first choice (if this is true) and that you hope they can make it possible for her to enroll.
Some final tips
It is always easier to say no to someone in writing than over the phone and more accessible over the phone than in person. If you can visit the financial aid office, mention in your cover email that you would like to arrange a meeting as soon as possible. Otherwise, let them know you will follow up in a few days by phone.
Remember, admitted applicants have leverage, and your persuasive arguments have a good chance of initiating a recalculation of your need. This can result in your child’s financial aid award being increased. Know going into the negotiation what you will require to make your child’s enrollment possible. Be prepared to say no if they don’t meet it, and yes if they do!
Interested in finding reliable information and advice from some of the most experienced and trusted experts in college admission advising?
Jeff Levy, the author of this piece, is one of our college admissions experts and answers questions about finding generous schools with merit aid and how to pay for college.
Learn more about College Admissions: Grown and Flown
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