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

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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.

You and your family can appeal financial aid offers that don't meet your needs. There are two types of financial aid 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 judgment. 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.

There are two types of financial aid appeals that students can try: a matching appeal or a change of circumstance appeal.

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If you have experienced a change in circumstance and would like to request a professional judgment, 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:

A matching appeal goes 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?

Students whose financial aid appeals are unsuccessful may want to apply for scholarships.

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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.

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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