Financial Aid is a Multi-Step Process

College acceptance letters will start arriving in the homes of high school seniors right about now. Along with the good news, many of the letters will also tell students and families what their financial aid awards will be, if any. Savvy families will consider such letters and the aid they offer the beginning, rather than the end, of the process to determine how much they will actually pay for college.

The first step families should take to try to increase the size of a college’s financial aid offer, or to reduce the overall amount they will pay, is to write an appeal letter. The appeal, directed to the financial aid office, should note any circumstances that have changed in a family’s finances since the student applied to the college.

This can include a job loss, or high medical bills, a divorce, or other unexpected events that may affect a family’s ability to cover the costs of college. The appeal should also mention whether the family already has tuition expenses for another child or two.

Flattery could be effective as well. An appeal that states how strongly the student really wants to attend the college – if only the costs were reduced – could move financial aid administrators to sweeten their offer.

“The odds of receiving additional aid are very high by simply writing a positive appeal letter,” said Michael Niedenfuehr of College Funding Options, a Minneapolis-based company that advises families on college decisions. “Bottom line, it’s okay to appeal.”

Niedenfuehr pointed out that colleges differ in how they calculate the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. Private schools, in particular, vary widely in their assessments of how much a family can afford to pay out of pocket, as well as in the size of grants and loans to offer.

Brenda Murtha, director of financial aid at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., welcomes the opportunity to work with families to make her school more affordable.

In sending out acceptance letters and aid offers, “We go with our best award initially,” she said. But if “the student really wants to be here, we would not want the family to make a decision over a few thousand dollars.” Augustana’s financial aid office would certainly weigh a family’s changed circumstances in considering a revised award.

Neither can it hurt to make college administrators aware of what other colleges have promised.

“While we typically don’t match other schools’ offers, we do talk to families about net pricing,” said Stuart Perry, executive director of financial aid at The College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Collegeville. Perry would want to look carefully at another college’s award letter to make sure, for example, that offers of student loans were not mistaken for grants.

Perry’s office has a “special circumstances form” that families can use in making an appeal to Saint John’s. While family financial hardship could result in additional need-based aid, an improved test score or special academic accomplishment since the application process began could generate more merit-based aid.

Niedenfuehr said that a family’s appeal letter “should repeat the student’s special attributes, what the student would contribute by his or her presence on campus.”

Make the competition among schools for well-qualified students work to your financial advantage. Colleges don’t want to lose a four-year paying customer over a few thousand dollars up front.