Another college admissions season has mostly come and gone. Admission decisions -- and many financial aid decisions -- have been rendered and now other issues must be dealt with: Where should you enroll? What should you do about the waitlist? How are you dealing with rejection? Are other colleges still taking applications? Should I apply there?
Probably the biggest decision that has to be made is this: How will you pay for college? None of us has to be told how expensive college is these days. Along with the frightening reality of college costs comes the even more shocking reality of student loan debt. Yes, I’m talking about loan debt once again, and with good reason. Loan debt can alter a young person’s quality of life for decades. I’ve preached that here many times.
The weeks from now until May 1 for many of you will be a critical decision period. You’ll not only have to decide which acceptance to accept, so to speak, but also how to deal with the financial aid package that came with that acceptance. That’s where decision time can become anxiety time. If you have been fortunate enough to get into one of your most desired colleges (sometimes known as a “dream school,” a term I dislike), but your financial aid package has fallen short, what can be done?
For those of you who have received good news from your first-choice school -- Congratulations! For those of you who may have been disappointed by your most highly prized school but received good news from other excellent colleges, congratulations to you, too. For those of you who may have to “settle” (many times a highly misleading word) for a so-called “safety school,” don’t despair. Many times a safety can deliver a premium educational and social experience. You can come to realize how wrong your original doubts or reservations about it may have been.
But -- and there always seems to be a but -- sometimes there can be a catch with getting into a first-choice school. The complications of a financial aid shortfall can turn that “dream” school into a nightmare of scrambling desperation and angst. First, though, let’s examine this situation and discuss some potential remedies.
Know the Financial Aid Types
There are two basic kinds of financial aid: need based and merit. Thinking back across your college application process, you no doubt recall the 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 (the latter two typically being required by private colleges and universities) is to assess your family’s ability to pay the cost of attendance.
Along with your acceptance, or shortly thereafter, you probably received 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. The most crucial part of that letter’s information is the amount of student loans you will be required to take on.
Be careful when you read these aid award letters. Many excited accepted applicants look immediately to the bottom line that shows the “total” of aid, which also includes those loans. Here’s an example of that. 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?
While researching this article, I came across some particularly apt advice about how to appeal a financial aid package that has fallen short of your (and your family’s) needs. The advice comes from my College Confidential colleague, Sally Rubenstone, who also authors CC’s very popular Ask the Dean feature. So, here are Sally’s approaches that she suggested in answer to two timely questions about financial aid. Her answers may not only help current seniors -- but also soon-to-be rising seniors -- deal with a shortfall in financial aid.
Appealing Merit Aid Awards
Question: My son has received acceptance to a number of schools. All but one offered him scholarship dollars. They are still quite expensive. Is it appropriate to ask if they can improve on the offer? If so, how/when do you ask?
Sally responds: Sometimes it is possible to cajole college officials into offering more aid. But, as you do so, you will have to walk the fine line between being polite and being persistent.
Your odds will be greatest at those colleges where your son is an especially strong candidate. At some schools, merit scholarships are controlled by the financial aid office and, at others, by the admission office. So you should start your appeal with the latter, although you may be quickly directed to financial aid. Here’s how to proceed:
- Make an appointment to speak to an admission officer, explaining that you want to discuss your son’s merit grant. As noted above, you may be directed to the financial aid office instead. Unless you live within a reasonable drive of the college in question, this “meeting” will take place on the phone.
- You should be prepared to give the college a specific amount of money that you need. It’s not wise to simply say, “This won’t work as is. We need more.” Instead, you should determine how much more you require and request this amount.
- If possible, explain exactly why the current aid award won’t work. You should have figures in front of you to back up this claim … rent or mortgage costs, utilities, car payments, health insurance or medical expenses, etc. … i.e., anything reasonable that eats into your income and assets (i.e., not the round-the-world second-honeymoon cruise that you’re booking as soon as Junior hits the dorm room!).
- Because merit awards are often heavily based on GPA and standardized test scores, if your son has gone up significantly in either area since submitting his application, be sure to say so.
- If your son has been awarded more money by another college with roughly comparable admission standards, you may be able to use this other grant to leverage an increase at similar schools. If a less selective college has offered your son more money, the leverage ploy probably won’t get you very far, but if a more selective college … or a “competitor college” … has offered a bigger scholarship, your appeal may have some oomph. So it’s fine to mention other merit awards that might lure your son elsewhere if this college won’t cough up.
Don’t take “no” for an answer right off the bat. Keep plugging. But you also must act grateful for every crumb that’s been tossed your way so far and never entitled to more. As I pointed out at the start, this line can be very narrow.
When to Explain Extenuating Circumstances to Financial Aid Offices
Question: If we have a high EFC and extenuating financial circumstances, should we send a letter to the financial aid office asking for special consideration before we receive their financial aid award or wait until we receive it?
Sally responds: You should definitely send an explanatory letter to colleges at the time that you apply for aid, or as soon thereafter as possible. Do not wait until you receive your aid award. If you have documentation that backs up your explanation (e.g., the nursing home bills you pay for Grandma), send copies with your letter.
However, like most things in the admissions world, the responses to your situation may be inconsistent. One college might take your extenuating circumstances into account; the next school might not.
So, once your child has received all aid awards, you should contact the financial aid offices that were not responsive to your needs and try to appeal … unless, of course, these are not colleges that your child wants to attend.
If a college -- let’s call it “College A” -- does not seem to consider your special needs but another school (“College B”) does, you may be able to leverage one aid award against the other, if you prefer A over B. However, this rarely works unless the admission standards at both schools are comparable, and -- even then -- you have to keep in mind that even similar schools can have dissimilar financial aid policies … or budgets. Even so, it can’t hurt to try.
Getting enough funds to pay for college can be a challenge on multiple levels. The first challenge comes when you look at your financial aid award notice. Don’t be blinded by that “Total” figure. Look for loans. The next challenge occurs when dealing with financial aid administrators. Politeness is mandatory. Avoid an attitude of entitlement. The final challenge is making an enrollment decision, which implies, “This is where I’m going to college and I accept the cost.”
Get the Scoop on Appealing
There’s a wealth of information out there about getting more from financial aid packages. For example, here, in part, is what The Princeton Review has to say about that:
-- 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 circumstances (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. ...
If you would like to explore additional suggestions, you can start here. Once you’ve read through a number of these “How to deal with an insufficient financial aid award” articles, you’ll begin to see a common trend of approach emerge. The keys are respectfulness, honesty and specific details. Add to those “timeliness.” Don’t procrastinate once you have evaluated your additional needs. Colleges’ financial aid budgets are finite and function on a kind of first-come-first-served basis. Be among those who are served!