It’s no surprise that colleges are seeing a deluge in financial aid appeals ahead of the fall semester. Obviously, COVID-19 has impacted many people’s ability to pay for college.
If you’re planning to appeal your award, it’s important to know that the process is less straight-forward than usual this year. While that may create a bit more chaos on the school’s side, it may actually be a benefit to you. Here’s what you need to know.
More ‘professional judgment’ decisions
The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators reports that 90% of colleges expect to see a sharp increase in appeals that require professional judgment between now and October.
In the financial aid world, “professional judgment” refers to a school administrator’s ability to adjust a student’s FAFSA information based on unusual circumstances. An adjustment to your FAFSA could change the amount of your family's Expected Financial Contribution (EFC), which is a key factor in determining your eligibility for Pell Grants, subsidized student loans, and other federal aid.
However, FAFSA calculations are not the sole determinant of whether you can receive more aid. Financial aid money generally comes from multiple sources, including the federal government, the state, endowments (which are investments and assets that exist to provide funding for the school), and institutional funding for merit scholarships. Your school may pull from one or several sources of aid when offering you additional assistance.
Here's how to help ensure that your appeal gets proper consideration.
1. Be polite
Of course, you should always be polite when appealing your financial aid award, but that’s especially true this year.
Financial aid staffers are under unprecedented stress. Remember that the person receiving your email or phone call is human. They’re probably juggling more work than usual while facing constant questions that they may or may not be able to answer.
Being empathetic is not guaranteed to boost your financial aid award, but it will certainly help advance your case for consideration. Being rude is not a risk worth taking, even if you’re frustrated.
2. Don’t wait
Here’s the thing: Schools have a finite amount of money to hand out and there’s a lot of competition this year.
Some sources of financial aid are first-come, first-serve. Get yourself in the reconsideration queue before possible funds are depleted.
3. Be specific about your situation
Don’t be afraid to get personal. Discuss the exact circumstances and concerns that have created your need for more financial aid. Perhaps a parent has lost a job or is at risk of being laid off. Perhaps someone in your home is or was ill, or there was a recent death in the family. Maybe you were laid off from your part-time job or had to reduce your hours to care for a younger sibling.
Whatever the case, explain in detail why your need has increased. Remember that a person will be reading your letter or email. Making a human connection is a powerful way to help build your case.
4. Provide documentation
Whenever possible, include documentation with your appeal. Some examples: a letter of termination, a furlough notice, a time sheet showing reduced hours, or medical bills.
Your appeal is more likely to get serious consideration if you offer proof of need. Sending it right away, with your first communication, will make it easier for the financial aid administrator to consider your request.
5. Sell yourself
As we mentioned above, one possible source of additional funding is merit aid. Schools can distribute merit aid for a wide variety of reasons, including athletic or academic accomplishments, demonstrating leadership, doing community service, or any other number of factors.
Even though you were already accepted to the college or university, it’s smart to remind the school of why you’ll be an asset to the institution. Give the school a reason — any reason — to consider throwing some of those “merit” dollars your way.
Many high schools changed their grading system to pass/fail during the pandemic. If your good grades during the last marking period were not reflected in your final GPA, make sure to mention that. If you have a teacher, coach, or other mentor who has already provided a letter of recommendation, ask that person if they’d consider drafting a second one to accompany your appeal.
Be sure to note any extra responsibilities you took on during the quarantine or other ways that you might have distinguished yourself.
6. Take advantage of free resources
Check out SwiftStudent, a free digital resource to help guide students through the financial aid process. The site allows you to navigate through different appeal scenarios to maximize your chances at additional aid. It includes information about special circumstances, such as dependent care obligations, how to seek independent student status by excluding parental income information, and emergency aid for COVID-19-related issues.
SwiftStudent allows you to create a custom appeal letter from a number of existing templates. The tool was created based on focus groups consisting of parents, students, financial aid administrators, college counselors, and other people in related fields, so it covers many of the most-common appeal questions and scenarios.
If you still have tuition gaps
If you’ve exhausted all sources of financial aid and scholarships, a private student loan can help you cover remaining tuition gaps. The good news is that education loans for 2020-2021 are reflecting historically low interest rates, meaning that you can invest in your education at a significantly better rate than usual. See our picks for the best loans for 2020 here.
And remember: Scholarships are your best source of free money for college. Here are five no-essay scholarship applications you can FINISH in the next 20 minutes.