How to Negotiate a Better Financial Aid Package

how to ask for more financial aid

Any size financial aid package is something to be grateful for, but you can be grateful and still ask for more. If you’ve done the math and your financial aid is not enough, you might consider doing just that.

But what if you don’t know how to ask for more financial aid? Though there’s no guarantee you will get more money, it’s a straightforward process that’s worth a shot.

How to ask for more financial aid

The Higher Education Act of 1965 gave financial aid administrators the authority to adjust FAFSA data that’s used to determine financial aid. These data adjustments are made in the event of special circumstances that either have no place for inclusion in FAFSA or that happen after its submission.

This process of appeal is called professional judgment. To have any chance, though, you’re going to have to learn how to negotiate financial aid. Here’s the step-by-step.

1. Write a detailed letter explaining the reason for your appeal

This is what initiates the Professional Judgment Review.

Your appeal may be needs-based, meaning your initial financial aid offer is not enough to cover your costs. Or it can be merit-based, meaning you have a higher offer from another school or some significant achievement since you first submitted the FAFSA.

Examples of a needs-based appeal may include:

  • Job loss
  • Salary reduction
  • Expenses for a special needs child
  • Expenses for elderly parent care
  • Expenses for parents enrolled in college
  • Natural disasters
  • Death of a wage earner

Examples of a merit-based appeal may include:

  • Copy of a higher offer from another school
  • Grades that have significantly improved since submitting the original FAFSA
  • Other awards since submitting the original FAFSA
  • Additional letters of recommendation

This list is not exhaustive. Just keep in mind that in the case of needs-based appeals, what financial aid administrators are looking for are circumstances negatively impacting your financial situation that are beyond your control.

2. Include supporting documentation

When the U.S. Department of Education audits colleges, one of the things they look at are professional judgment appeals. They want to see that any increase in financial aid as a result of the appeal is backed up by third-party documentation.

If auditors don’t see such documentation or sound reasoning why an appeal was granted, they may hold the school responsible for the additional aid awarded. For this reason, financial aid administrators are sticklers for the rules – give them what they need.

Examples of documentation for needs-based appeals may include:

  • Bills and receipts
  • Letters of termination
  • Bank statements

Examples of documentation for merit-based appeals may include:

  • Copies of offers from other schools
  • Grades and awards
  • Letters of recommendation

3. Mail your appeal

Contact the school to be sure you address your letter to the appropriate office.

If it is a needs-based appeal, contact the financial aid office. If it is a merit-based appeal, contact the enrollment or admissions office.

Explain you want to initiate a Professional Judgement Review (or Special Circumstances Review, as some schools call it).

Do not attempt to enter into any sort of appeal over the phone. Your only goal should be verifying where to mail the appeal.

4. Follow up

After a week or so, give the school a call to verify receipt. Use the same restraint in this phone call as you did in the one verifying the mailing address. Your only goal is making sure they received your appeal, not trying to strengthen it or fishing around for a clue as to whether your appeal stands a chance.

A few tips on how to negotiate financial aid

  • Keep the letter short and fact-filled, avoiding long, emotional appeals. Financial aid administrators do not want to hear sob stories or complaints. They want data they can plug into the formula that determines whether you get more money or not.
  • Include a breakdown of figures illustrating how much you will be falling short. Your job is to demonstrate your additional need as clearly as possible.
  • Avoid asking for a specific dollar amount.
  • If you have an offer from another school, state that their school (the one you’re appealing to) is your number one choice and if they match the offer, you will attend.
  • Refer to the process as “professional judgment” or “appeal,” not “negotiation” or “bargaining.”

What are your chances?

It depends on the school and your situation. Some colleges don’t negotiate at all. Others do, but not with everyone.

In 2014, The New York Times surveyed colleges to get some idea of what percentage of professional judgment appeals are successful.

Some schools said they don’t keep track; others wouldn’t say at all. Some did, though:

  • Eugene Lang College at the New School said it approves 57 percent of appeals
  • Cornell and Sarah Lawrence both said they approves about half of appeals
  • Dartmouth said it approves the majority of appeals

With such a small sampling, that’s not a lot to go on, but it does offer some insight and hope.

What does seem pretty universally understood, though, is that needs-based appeals are more often granted than merit-based.

Can you appeal the appeal?

No. There is no process for appealing to the college president, for example, or the Department of Education. The buck stops with the financial aid administrator.

That said, if your situation changes (i.e., gets worse for needs-based or better for merit-based), you may request another Professional Judgment Review in the future. In fact, you can appeal your financial aid package at any point throughout your college career.

Other things to keep in mind

  • Do not appeal just for the sake of appealing. You must be able to prove additional need or merit.
  • Do not include a letter of appeal with FAFSA. Follow the process as laid out. Submit FAFSA, wait for the offer, then initiate the Professional Judgment Review, need be.
  • During the process, you may be asked to provide additional information and/or documentation.
  • Colleges typically only match higher offers from other colleges they compete with.
  • Don’t expect a lot. If approved, your appeal may only mean an extra couple of thousand dollars. But that’s a win to be accepted and celebrated.

Asking for help isn’t always easy, especially when you’ve already asked via FAFSA and the help offered isn’t enough. It’s not because they don’t care, though. Financial aid administrators just need more information.

That’s what learning how to ask for more financial aid is all about – explaining the details of your situation as honestly and completely as possible. Good luck!

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