I've already addressed the psychological effects of student loan debt. That's a sobering subject that can have a long-lasting impact on college students and their families. It all begins with financial aid packages that outline how much money you can expect to spend, which will be coming out soon with Regular Decision (RD) acceptances as we approach spring.
In most cases, those who have been accepted Early Action (EA) or Early Decision (ED) have already received their packages, and the reality of loan debt, if any, has made its initial impact. Those effects can be so negative in some cases that any hope of enrolling is snuffed out -- a very significant disappointment.
To those of you who have received both good news and aid from your “dream" school via your EA and ED applications -- congratulations! For those of you who may have been disappointed by your dream school, either for getting in or for aid, but received good news from other excellent colleges, congratulations to you, too. If you may eventually have to “settle" (many times a highly misleading word) for a so-called safety school … well … you should know that sometimes safeties can become the stuff of dream schools, once you go there and experience how wrong your original less-than-enthusiastic opinions about them may have been.
But (and there always seems to be a but), sometimes there even can be a catch with getting into a dream school, as alluded to above. The complications of a financial aid shortfall can turn that dream school into a disappointing scenario. The key phrase is “financial aid shortfall." A quick review:
There are two basic kinds of financial aid: need-based and merit. Thinking back across your college application process, you no doubt recall the time and labor needed to fill in all those financial aid forms -- the FAFSA, the CSS Profile and maybe even a college's own school-specific form. The purpose of those forms is to assess your family's ability to pay the cost of attendance.
Along with your acceptance letter, you likely received (or will soon receive) a financial aid award letter. Sometimes these are “tentative," to be finalized a bit later, but the point is to give you a ballpark idea of how much you will receive from grants, scholarships and work study. However, as I constantly preach here, the most crucial part of that information is the amount of student loans you will be required to take on.
Scrutinize Award Letters
Be careful when you read your award letters. Many excited accepted applicants look immediately to the bottom line that shows the total of “aid," which also includes those loans. This number can be very misleading because, obviously, your eager mind filters out, at least for the moment, the reality that perhaps a significant amount of that bottom-line number will have to be repaid … by YOU, starting soon after you graduate -- or, unfortunately, after you suspend or prematurely end your college career.
Thus, be sure to consider the impact of those loans before you make a judgment about how good (or bad) your financial aid package is. Accordingly, what options are open to you if that judgment happens to be "bad?"
You Can Request More Money
It's not a sin to ask a college for more money. How successful your appeal will be depends on many things. One way to think about trying to convince a college that you legitimately deserve more non-loan aid is to imagine that you are a lawyer in court. You are representing yourself and the college financial aid office is the jury that will decide whether or not to rule in favor of your argument (appeal) for more aid.
So how do make that argument? Most of the articles that offer advice about appealing financial aid packages cover generally the same ground. I reviewed a number of them and chose two that give solid information and I thought I would share their core points here with you today, to help you prepare to deal with your aid packages.
First up are The Princeton Review's insights. In its article "How to Appeal Your Financial Aid Award," TPR covers four key points, after a brief introduction:
… the financial aid award letter sent from your college is an offer. And it's an offer you're under no obligation to accept. You can turn down a portion or even reject the award in its entirety (though we guess that's unlikely). You can also suggest alternatives. This is called "appealing" for more financial aid.
If one of your best-fit colleges did not award you enough money, it's worth a shot to appeal your offer. You have nothing to lose — a college will not rescind your acceptance because you want to appeal. In fact, when other admitted students decide to enroll elsewhere, award money earmarked for them becomes available.
I like that phrase, “You have nothing to lose …" However, don't be like a crazed gambler carelessly rolling the dice. There's a structured approach that can give you the best odds for getting more money. TPR continues:
Before you commit to enrolling, contact the financial aid office. Here are four good points to keep in mind:
- Follow the school's rules! Some colleges have specific procedures to request additional funds. These will require your diligent attention and your painstaking follow-through.
- When you make the call (and we do recommend phone over email) explain that you have been accepted and received an offer of financial aid. Let the officer know that you want to enroll but are concerned about either unmet need or excessive loan debt.
- Be friendly, polite and sincere. Don't use words like "bargain" or "negotiate." Also, don't forget to make your requests before the deadline written on your award letter!
- Most schools won't alter the expected family contribution unless there was a change in circumstance (such as the loss of a job, divorce or death). Colleges will be more willing to modify your award to cover any "unmet need." Another alternative is changing a portion of your loans from unsubsidized to subsidized.
There's lots of common sense here. Follow the rules, be polite and show sincere intent to enroll. Be prepared to make your very best approach to “the jury." Things can go south, though, so be prepared:
Appealing your award is NOT a sure thing. Colleges will have varying responses, dependent upon your reasoning and their ability to adjust the circumstances. Many times they aren't able to offer any changes, but the only way you will know is if you ask.
I agree. You shouldn't merely mourn the fact that you didn't get enough aid. Be proactive. It's the old cliche: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If you don't make an effort to appeal, you'll never know if an approach could have made all the difference.
Another perspective on appealing aid comes from Fastweb: 3 Tips to Appeal Financial Aid Packages. Here are those highlights:
1. Assess your circumstances.
If your family has fallen under financial hardships, the school does not expect you to pay with your existing financial aid package. These special circumstances include, but aren't limited to, job loss, unexpected medical bills or a parent's death. Additionally, though the FAFSA attempts to provide a complete picture of your financial obligations, it doesn't take into account conditions like disabled siblings or parents that require medical or occupational therapy, which also fall under the realm of a possible appeal to your financial aid package.
At this time, you can also “negotiate" your scholarships or merit aid. If you feel you deserve more or were given more scholarship money from a similar institution, you can always use that as leverage to make a case for more scholarship dollars. However, treat this particular request with care and tact. Don't use the term “negotiate;" simply ask financial aid officers if anything can be done to further compensate your merit achievements.
2. Contact the financial aid office at your institution.
Whether you've just made your final college decision or you're about to pack up for the dorms, it's never too late to appeal your financial aid decision. You can even request an appeal in the middle of the school year.
Contact the financial aid office via phone call or letter; do not email. This is a personal plea for an appeal so you need to make it as personable as possible. If you write a letter, detail the circumstances and provide evidence to go along with your claims. However, if you call into the office, it may be best to set up an appointment either over the phone or in-person to discuss the change in finances at length.
3. Be prepared, open and willing to compromise.
When you have conversations with financial aid officers about the change in financial circumstances, provide documentation, like unemployment benefits or medical bills. You're making a case for a new financial aid package, and you need to prove that you need it.
Finally, financial aid officers are helpful, knowledgeable staff at universities who work hard to ensure that paying for school is as feasible as possible for all students. You'll get a lot further in your appeals if you see the financial aid officer as a partner and not an adversary. If you are open and appreciative of their help, financial aid administrators are more likely to do everything possible to make paying for school easier for you and your family. ...
Fastweb's tips offer an important additional insight: Be willing to compromise. You may not have to get everything you want to make your enrollment happen. Don't take an “all or nothing" approach. Be reasonable, keep an open mind and -- as always -- work in conjunction with your parents on all of this. It's a team effort.
Appeals are done all the time. But as noted, don't be shocked if you don't succeed. There may be circumstances at work about which you are unaware, such as a rule that requires aid decisions to be based on class rank at the time of application. But do be persistent, grateful and polite. The very last image you should project is someone who thinks he or she is entitled to more aid. That's the express lane to failure.
Thus, you can see that there are ways to negotiate with a college's financial aid office. The keys are respectfulness, honesty and specific details that pertain to your level of need. Also, add “timeliness." Don't procrastinate once you have evaluated your additional needs. College financial aid budgets are finite and function on a kind of first-come, first-served basis. Be among the first to be served!