Improving Your Financial Aid Offer
After months of preparing essays, a resume and the many requirements for your college and graduate school admissions process, you might think all work is done. You’ve sent out your college and financial aid applications, and now the replies are starting to roll in. All your requests for financial aid have been accepted, but there’s one little problem – not one of the offers is anywhere near enough to cover your predicted expenses for attending university. What do you do?
Here’s the good news – when you get accepted into a school, almost all universities really want you to choose to attend their school and will do whatever they can within their own budgets to make it possible for all serious students – not just the ones able to afford it – to attend. If your financial aid package is not enough to cover your impending expenses, you can appeal the offer and possibly get it increased.
Before starting the appeal process, there are some important factors to keep in mind. First and foremost, you must be totally honest with the information you supply. At every step of the application and appeal process, transparency is imperative. You will also be wise to remember that you are appealing the financial aid offer rather than negotiating. Financial aid counselors are experts in their field and respond more openly to those who show respect for their position.
Your first step to appealing a financial aid offer is to visit the school’s website to see if they have a specific appeal procedure or online form to complete this process. Once this is done, it is recommended that you contact the school by phone, email or letter. Contacting the financial aid department, as well as the admissions department in order to divulge your situation is advisable. Remember that the staff is to be respected and appreciated. Showing your human side while explaining the strain of your situation will allow them to connect with you on a personal level, and empathize with you. When exposing your needs, communicate your appreciation for the school’s initial offer while explaining that you would love to attend their prestigious school, but this will not be possible with what you have been offered in financial aid. It is imperative to send a follow-up email that summarizes discussed facts in order for the college representative to take your appeal process to the next level.
Universities run on a tight budget, but often there is flexibility in their spending. You will probably find that you receive different financial aid offers from different schools. This can work in your favor. It is not uncommon to explain that you have received a more favorable offer when discussing your financial aid package with a particular school. If the school really wants you to attend and they have available funds to support you, they could decide to make the effort to match or even surpass the other offer.
Recent successes might play an important role in drawing attention once again to your candidacy. There are many instances in which students receive special awards or achieve special goals after having gained admission to the school of their choice. If this is your case, be ready to update your student resume and send it along with your financial package appeal letter. It is important for the admissions and financial aid staff to learn about your recent achievements to accurately reassess your situation, and the opportunity to provide you a new financial package offer.
Finally, be aware of when there is a genuine chance of a successful appeal and when it is likely to have no effect at all. In her article in the U.S. News and World Report, Lynn O’Shaughnessy writes that private colleges and flagships tend to have more flexibility in how much money they can award in financial aid, whereas public institutions are under the restraints of federal and state funding, so are less likely to increase their financial aid offers. 3
It is better to prepare well in advance to receive the highest possible financial aid offers so you can avoid the appeal procedure entirely. With enough advanced planning, there are many steps parents can take while their child is still in high school, or even younger, that will increase the student’s chances of a healthy financial aid package when the time comes for them to go to university. However, if you are already in the middle of the process, you might end up not finding the offer you wish for at your most desirable school. But with so many great educational choices in the U.S., the opportunity to identify great institutions that fit your educational and pocket needs are plentiful. Seek and you shall find!
When a student applies for financial aid, the college will look at the student’s assets first. Whereas the student’s assets are assessed at 20%, the parent’s assets are only assessed at 5.64%, so it makes sense to keep the savings in the parent’s name. One tax-efficient way parents can save for their child’s education is through a U.S. government program known as the 529 Plan, but it is important that the plan is in the donor’s name. The website Savingforcollege.com offers some very useful advice including this: “Calculating the impact on financial aid by 529 plans is relatively simple where a parent is the holder of the 529 plan. The impact on financial aid is complicated when the plan is in the student’s name. This is something to consider when you take out a 529 plan.” 4
Another very helpful website is The Smart Student Guide to Financial Aid which offers a comprehensive list of advice in their Maximizing Your Aid Eligibility article.5 This article suggests several basic principles to increase your financial aid package. By reducing your assets, increasing the number of family members enrolled in higher education, taking advantage of the lower assessment threshold for parental assets, and, if possible, changing the student’s status from dependent to independent, families can expect to increase their children’s financial aid offers. It is definitely worth visiting this website for full details on steps you can take to maximize your eligibility for needs-based financial aid.
Another form of financial assistance available to university students is merit aid which, instead of being apportioned according to need, is based on the student’s academic excellence. This is a case of where it really does pay to study hard, as only students with top grades should bother to apply for merit aid. As well as getting A’s in all your courses, you will want to score high marks on your SAT and ACT. Remember, if you didn’t get the marks you had hoped for on these tests, you can take them again and re-submit your new (and improved!) scores.
According to the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aidat the University of Rochester, high school students who follow the International Baccalaureate program or take honors or advanced courses tend to increase their eligibility for merit aid. 6 When awarding merit aid, universities look for students who go the extra mile, taking strong courses and challenging themselves. Students who win academic awards in high school are also more likely to receive merit aid in university.
Most students apply to numerous universities, but when applying for merit aid, make sure you choose colleges that are a good fit for your talents. A university will be more inclined to offer financial rewards to students who will excel in their specialty programs. You may find that this means applying to smaller, lesser-known colleges where the application process is not so competitive. These colleges are looking for great students and will be all too happy to offer a financial incentive to serious students.
Though it is not widely publicized, one other possible way to secure an offer of merit aid is to apply EA or ED. A discussion on the College Confidential website presents the unanimous opinion that most colleges “have a ‘we give money until we run out’ policy” 7 leading to the logical conclusion that the earlier a student is admitted, the more funds there will be available to him or her. And colleges do run out of money. In an excerpt from The Fiske Guide to Getting into the Right College, the authors confirm that, “Many colleges unable to meet the full need of all their applicants will give first dibs on financial aid money to those admitted ED.” 8 So if you are a top student and you don’t want to miss your opportunity to get a merit-based scholarship, you should consider applying EA or ED.
1 Ratan, Peter. “Tips for Appealing Your Financial Aid Award.” Collegepete.com. (22/07/11)
3 O’Shaughnessy, Lynn. “Follow 6 Steps to Increase Your Financial Aid.” US News Education. (22/07/11)
4 “Does a 529 Plan affect financial aid?” Savingforcollege.com (27/07/11)
5 “Maximizing Your Aid Eligibility.” The Smart Student Guide to Financial Aid. (22/07/11)
6 Burdick, Jonathan. “What Kind of Scholarship Can I Get?” University of Rochester Blog Office of Admissions and Financial Aid. (22/07/11)
7 “Does applying EA increase Merit Aid Chances?” College Confidential. (22/07/11)
8 Fiske, Edward B. and Hammond, Bruce. “What is early decision and how does it work?” Source Books College Bound. (29/07/11)