How to Afford College when the FAFSA Doesn’t Foot the Bill

How to Afford College when the FAFSA Doesn’t Foot the Bill

This is a guest blog post written by our friends at Student Caffé, a free, inclusive resource for current and prospective college students. They offer in-depth articles on becoming a competitive college applicant, discovering four-year schools or less traditional alternatives, preparing a college application, and finding and applying for financial aid. Student Caffé is motivated by a firm belief that higher education should be accessible to anyone in the United States who wants to learn, regardless of age, gender, sexuality, race, religion, income bracket, immigration status, military service, disability, etc. We encourage you to learn more about Student Caffé and check out the original post!

So you received a couple of acceptance letters and with them, some less-than-ideal financial aid offers. Maybe one school gave you a lot more money than the other, but the school that is shortchanging you is your top choice. Without more money, going to your dream college might not be a possibility. The good news is this: You’re not out of options yet.

There are two types of appeals that you can make to a college. It’s important to use the word “appeal,” not “negotiation,” because financial aid officers aren’t in the business of negotiating. It sounds cheap, almost as if you were bargaining for a bag of spices or goods at an art fair. Financial aid and admissions officers can, however, be in the business of reading appeals. Isn’t that really what a college application is, when you think about it?

Change in circumstance appeals

A change in circumstance appeal may help you explain any drastic financial situation that has affected your family since your FAFSA was first submitted. It could include anything from a parent losing his or her job to a family member getting sick and having to deal with high health care bills. If your town experienced a natural disaster and your family lost everything, you are a good candidate for a change in circumstance appeal.

This type of appeal is also known as professional judgement. In fact, Congress has given college financial aid offices the right to reevaluate student awards in extreme cases. As a result, the decision of your school’s financial aid office is final. If you receive a no, you cannot appeal to anyone else. Be polite and do not try to gain the sympathy vote. Though a financial aid officer may be sympathetic to your situation, putting on airs and exaggerating will not get you anywhere.

If you have experienced a change in circumstance and would like to request a professional judgement, contact the financial aid office. Have the following ready:

  • A written appeal detailing the change in circumstance
  • Details on how much the financial situation has changed
  • Projected costs (if the circumstance is ongoing)
  • Documents proving the situation

Typically, change in circumstance appeals are more successful than matching appeals, which you can read about below. Ron Lieber wrote in a 2014 New York Times article that Occidental College approved one-third of appeals and Cornell University approved about half. Those statistics aren’t too bad, and if you meet the criteria for the appeal, you may be given enough money to make college possible.

Matching appeals

Matching appeals go like this. A student receives two financial aid offers. One of them is better than the other one. The student then shows the better offer to the college that didn’t award him or her with as much money in the hopes that it will raise its award to match the better offer. It’s easier to make a matching appeal than a change of circumstance appeal, but be prepared for a no. This type of appeal isn’t typically very successful.

The process is easy. You bring your financial aid award letter from a competing institution to the attention of financial aid officers and ask them if there is anything they can do for you. They may not help you, in which case you need to reevaluate your finances, check for any other sources of aid, and possibly take the school off your list. However, in some cases, they may agree to increase your financial aid award.

The amount of increase can depend on many factors: whether the competing offer was for need- or merit-based aid, the caliber of the competing institution, and the cost of attendance at each school. Ivy League schools typically match offers from other Ivies. The decision to grant a matching appeal, however, is up to each institution. There is no law or act of Congress that forces a school to do it. Still, it’s better to test your luck and be pleasantly surprised than not try at all.

What if there still isn’t enough money?

This is not a fun situation to be in, but it does happen. If you haven’t had any luck with appeals, you can try a couple more things before giving up. Calculate how much money you will need to make college possible, then consider the following options:

  • If you haven’t qualified for work-study, ask the financial aid or campus employment office if there are still any on-campus jobs available for students.
  • Check out the town to see if any local businesses are hiring college students for part-time work.
  • Recheck local, state, and country-wide scholarship postings. New scholarships are created all the time, and you never know what you might’ve missed the first time around. Apply for anything and everything.
  • Depending on how much money you need, you could consider crowdfunding.

Funding your education is tough, especially with tuition rates that seem to keep climbing. Keep your chin up and be persistent. Your perseverance just might pay off.

ScholarPrep Nation

ScholarPrep Nation is a college access program that arms scholars with a wide variety of tools and resources to help them navigate their high school journey and understand all of the post-high school opportunities available to them

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