For college students, preparing for a new school year is an exciting time. At least it should be. Some may be dreading the financial burden after reviewing their school’s financial aid award letter. Fortunately, the amount of aid offered in that letter isn’t set in stone. You can always submit a financial aid appeal letter through a formal process.
Yes, You Can Appeal
Completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is essential to applying for most types of financial aid for college, but sometimes it doesn’t capture the full picture of your family’s financial situation. Perhaps the FAFSA form is too limited for you to report your family’s unusual circumstances. Or maybe you’ve had a big change in your life since you filed your FAFSA. If you fall into one of these categories, don’t panic. Your college’s financial aid office has the authority to take another look at your financial need and make certain adjustments that could lead to more aid.
Here’s what you need to do to submit a financial aid appeal letter:
1. Make Sure You Have a Good Reason
Federal law gives financial aid administrators the power to use their discretion, often referred to as “professional judgment,” to re-evaluate factors such as your ability to pay and your cost of attendance. But you need to give them a solid justification to grant an appeal for more aid.
Before you submit an appeal letter, determine if you have a good reason to ask for this extra consideration.
Diminished Ability to Pay
One good reason for appealing is if you or your family had a major hardship that affects your ability to pay your education costs:
- Loss of a job or income
- Death of a parent or spouse
- Divorce or separation
- Unusual medical bills not covered by insurance
- Natural disaster
In other cases, you may have unusual circumstances that aren’t reflected in the FAFSA calculations because of the limitations of the application. Perhaps your family has to pay elementary or secondary school tuition or has unusually high ongoing medical bills. An appeal could also be granted if you've transferred funds from a regular IRA into a Roth IRA. This can increase the taxable income you reported on your tax return even though your family doesn’t actually have additional income available.
Higher-Than-Projected College Costs
You might ask for a “cost of attendance” adjustment, also called a budget appeal, to reflect higher-than-expected expenses for:
- Rent or utilities
- Costs for a computer or other specialized educational equipment
Bills associated with lifestyle choices such as car payments or vacation or wedding expenses wouldn’t be considered a good reason to appeal for more aid.
Change in Dependency Status
You aren’t allowed to update much of the information on the FAFSA form because it must be accurate as of the day you originally signed the application. One exception is what’s called your “dependency status.” If you’ve had a life change that qualifies you to be an independent student, you must update your FAFSA so your parents’ income isn’t considered in determining your financial need. Common reasons include getting married, gaining a dependent (such as having a baby), or joining the military.
In some cases, you can ask your college’s financial aid administrator to use their professional judgment to override your FAFSA dependency status. Generally, this is reserved for students who have no contact with their parents or are escaping an abusive home. You wouldn’t qualify for this change if your parents simply refuse to contribute to the cost of your education.
Some students might compare financial aid award letters from prospective schools only to find that the best financial aid package isn’t offered by their preferred college. In this case, students can submit a financial aid appeal letter to see if their first-choice university is willing to match the award offered by a competing college. Include a copy of the other award letter for proof.
2. Contact Your Financial Aid Office
After you've determined you've got a good reason to appeal, the next step is to reach out to your financial aid office. The office can explain your college’s process for financial aid appeals. Write down the provided instructions so you don’t omit any details.
3. Write Your Letter
A financial aid award letter should be polite, clear, and get to the point. A typical appeals letter should include the following elements:
- Introduce yourself and thank the college for its original financial aid offer
- Make it clear that you are requesting more aid
- Outline relevant events or circumstances that you feel warrant an aid adjustment
- Be honest and don’t try to game the system
- Provide appropriate detail and documentation to back your claim
- Thank the financial aid office for its assistance
4. Submit Required Forms
Check with the financial aid office to determine if there are specific forms you must submit with your letter. These might be called a Professional Judgment Request, an Unusual Circumstance Form or a Budget Appeal. It’s likely that your financial aid office will also require proof of your circumstances. For a dependency override, for instance, you’ll need a letter or document from a third party (like a teacher, prison official, counselor, or courthouse) to back your claim.
Appealing your financial aid amount can pay off if you find yourself in greater need. But if a financial aid administrator denies your request to make adjustments to FAFSA data, it can’t be appealed any further. In that case, keep the lines of communication open so you and your financial aid administrator can explore whether you have other options at your disposal.