As if paying for college weren’t difficult enough already, a global pandemic and consequent economic crisis have now been laid on top of that. Unfortunately, many families are finding that their ability to finance college has changed — drastically. So, the question arises — is now the time to be asking for additional financial aid?
“Absolutely,” says Mark Kantrowitz, Publisher and VP of research at SavingforCollege.com. “Approximately 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment. Assuming proportionality, 2 million college parents have now lost their jobs, been furloughed, or experienced pay cuts — all of which affect your ability to pay for college.” Job loss or decrease in income are the prototypical examples of “special circumstances” — reasons why one should appeal.
Remember, schools use your financial information from 2018 (two whole years ago!) to create your financial aid package for 2020. “A lot of people’s circumstances will have changed dramatically since then. But the school has no way of knowing that, so you have to tell them,” asserts Joe Messinger, CFP, partner and director of College Planning at Capstone Wealth Partners, and CEO of College Aid Pro.
Whenever special circumstances arise — and discretionary lifestyle choices don’t count — do not be afraid to appeal. “You can appeal for more aid at any time. You can appeal multiple times a year if you have multiple special circumstances,” says Kantrowitz.
Just keep in mind that any additional aid you win on a need-basis won’t be because of your bargaining skills, but rather because the school deems your special circumstances merit an adjustment to the FAFSA data elements. (That’s right, you’ve got to fill out the FAFSA. But don’t fret, it won’t take long.) “The college can make adjustments, but it will need updated information from you,” explains Kantrowitz. Here’s the nitty gritty of that process.
WHERE TO START
So you’ve identified your special circumstances and realized it’s time to appeal for more aid. The first thing Messinger asks: “Do you have an advocate at the college?” If you’re an incoming freshman, you might have an admissions counselor you’ve worked with closely, someone at the school who can be your advocate. “Connect with them first,” says Messinger.
You’ll have to check in with college to find out how to appeal for financial aid (it differs per school). This can be a phone call, but Kantrowitz recommends sending an email. The college will ask you to complete the FAFSA. “That’s the baseline from which they work.”
THE APPEAL LETTER
Next, most colleges will ask you to write an appeal letter. This is where you will summarize your special circumstances. “I suggest including a bulleted list, one bullet per circumstance,” advises Kantrowitz. “There will likely be more than one because when it rains it pours.” For each special circumstance you’ll need to clearly explain: what is the financial impact on the family?
Keep in mind: the letter should not tell your life story. “Keep it short. Focus on the relevant circumstances. If you’re telling a story that starts ten years ago, that’s probably too much information,” says Kantrowitz.
A common question: Should I be asking for a specific amount of money in my appeal letter? Kantrowitz advises against this. “Asking for a specific dollar amount can actually reduce the amount of aid you receive, not increase it.” Here’s why: if you ask for a specific dollar amount, and it is less than the amount that they calculate you need, many colleges will simply take you at your word and give you a lower amount.
However, you may include a competing offer from a comparable, “apples to apples” college and see if your targeted school can offer you a better price. It can’t hurt to do this, says Kantrowitz, so long as you’re polite about it. “There’s no appeal beyond the administrator, so you need to be polite.”
To validate your special circumstances, you’ll need to provide proper documentation. This means compiling independent, third-party documentation of the special circumstances. You might include things like a termination letter, medical bills, and bank statements. Be sure to send copies, not originals. “The school can’t make an adjustment without the documentation… But once they have it, they can go full-speed ahead. And they usually process it pretty quickly,” notes Kantrowitz.
HOW COLLEGES ARE RESPONDING
Colleges’ budgets are squeezed right now, so you might think they’d be less likely to negotiate with you… but that’s not necessarily the case. “We know that across the board, it’s highly unlikely that the majority of international students are coming back anytime soon. Colleges need to fill those seats. Because of this, we see more generosity with financial aid because they need to draw students to their school versus other schools,” explains Messinger.
During these unprecedented times, schools are stepping up. They want to understand your current circumstances, so it’s up to you to communicate them. “For people who are persistent and able to provide the proper documentation about what’s changed, schools really do want to make sure you get a fair package based on what’s really happening.”
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