4 Steps to Appealing a Financial Aid Decision

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You've spent hours putting the final touches on your applications, and you got into your dream school. All that hard work paid off!

But sometimes dissecting your financial aid package can leave you wanting a little something more. That's totally understandable. Since a package is merely an offer, there's no reason to accept it without first giving it some thought. I always ask students and parents who are unhappy with a financial aid offer if they've considered making an appeal.

My goal is not to send you running to the financial aid office thinking that you'll get more money if you just ask for it. It can literally pay to be prepared. Here are some things to keep in mind before you start your appeal.

Determine Whether You Need It

To get more money, you need to think things through carefully. If you can comfortably afford the amount the college says you must pay, there's little chance they're going to throw more cash your way — the aid package is probably pretty good already. Remember that you're pitching your case to a financial aid officer (FAO) who knows just how fair it is. Be realistic and admit if your expected contribution is reasonable or not before proceeding.

But if you're facing the real prospect of not attending your dream school because of money, or if two similarly ranked colleges offer you shockingly different packages, then sit down and map out your strategy.

Appeal While (And If) You Have Leverage

Appealing isn't a game, but there are some strategies that can give you more leverage. One is timing. Don't accept admission to the school if you plan to appeal. At that point, you're already locked into going, whether they give you more money or not. If that's the case, the school won't have much incentive to grant your appeal, will they? Not a chance!

Determining your leverage also comes down to making an objective assessment of how badly the school wants you, so a student who just barely squeaked in is going to have a lot less to work with than one with a stellar academic record.

Assemble Your Case

I'm sure you know the matter of paying for college is no joke, so don't treat it like one! If an FAO can tell you haven't done careful calculations before your appeal, they won't take you seriously.

Have these ready beforehand:

- Specific Reasons You Require More Money

- Exact Amount Desired

- Other Comparable Offers

Your case will be bolstered if you can cite specific reasons why an offer isn't enough. Things like loss of a job, divorce or a death in the family can all be mentioned and are perfectly valid. You'll also be expected to provide a specific amount of money that you think you need to match the expected contribution. Without this, your argument will not be as credible. Crunch the numbers first!

Also, don't be afraid to use a more lucrative offer from a comparable school as leverage! The last thing a school wants is to lose a star student to another school just because they offered more money. (Make sure it is, in fact, a comparable school, though. An offer from a less-regarded school won't hold that much weight, especially if the FAO can sense you aren't really willing to go there.)

Make the Call

If possible, visit the office in person. If that can't happen, don't settle for an email. Pick up the phone! Once there (or on the phone), don't use terms like “bargain" or “negotiate." You're not really negotiating so much as you are stating the facts of why a financial aid package just won't work.

Also be aware of any approaching deadlines. If one's coming up, be as courteous as possible and ask for a deadline up front! This will build your credibility with the office because you'll come off as sympathetic to their needs and not just your own.

Even if you've done all this, keep in mind that appeals only sometimes make a dream school a reality. As I always remind students and parents, appeals are never sure things. Colleges will have varying responses, and the only way to know is to ask! And if things don't go your way (or even if they do), don't be afraid to get creative when it comes to paying for college. Our books 8 Steps to Paying Less for College and Paying for College offer great tips on lifting the burdens of tuition and fees so that paying for college can be a little more bearable.