How To Ask for More Financial Aid for College (and Hopefully Get It)

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Any financial aid 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 isn’t enough to cover college costs, you might consider doing just that.

But what if you don’t know how to ask for more financial aid? Although it isn’t guaranteed you’ll get more money, filing an appeal is a straightforward process that’s worth a shot, particularly if the coronavirus pandemic or something else has affected your family finances.

According to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, nearly 60% of colleges experienced a “somewhat or great” uptick in requests for more financial aid from March through September of 2020, a period coinciding with the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So if you need to ask for more financial aid, here are three topic to review:

How to ask for more financial aid

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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 ask for more financial aid. Here are the steps you’ll need to take:

1. Write a detailed letter explaining the reason for your appeal
2. Include supporting documentation
3. Mail your appeal
4. Follow up

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 could be merit-based, meaning you have a higher offer from another school or some significant achievement since you first submitted the FAFSA.

A needs-based appeal might be right for you if your family experienced a job loss or reduction in salary. It might also apply if your family has extra expenses for a special needs child or elderly parent care, or even if your parents themselves enrolled in college. Finally, you might need to ask for more financial aid if your family survived a natural disaster.

Examples of special circumstances
● Lost income or change in employment
● Change in marital status or family size
● Death of a spouse or parent
● Parent enrolls in college, full-time
● No longer receiving child support
● New healthcare costs not covered by insurance
● Experienced a total loss due to a natural disaster

A merit-based appeal, on the other hand, is all about your academic achievements. If your grades significantly improved since you submitted the FAFSA, for instance, you might notify the school to see if it will grant you more merit-based aid. Evidence of academic awards or additional letters of recommendation could help your case.

Another example of a merit-based appeal includes a better offer from a competing school. You might state in your appeal that you’ll enroll if the college can match the offer from the other school. Keep in mind that this strategy typically only works if the other offer comes from a direct competitor.

Whether you’re filing a needs-based or merit-based appeal, you’ll need the documentation to back up your case. Make sure you can prove your point with supporting paperwork.

2. Include supporting documentation

When the 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 an 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, so give them what they need.

Documentation for needs-based appeals could include:

  • Bills and receipts
  • Letters of termination
  • Bank statements

Paperwork for merit-based appeals could include:

3. Mail your appeal

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

If it’s a needs-based appeal, contact the financial aid office to ask for more aid. If it’s a merit-based appeal, contact the enrollment or admissions office.

Explain that 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 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. You want to make sure they received your appeal, not try to strengthen it or fish around for a clue as to whether your appeal stands a chance.

Tips on how to get more financial aid

Asking for more financial aid can feel uncomfortable, but there are ways you can approach the process to make it as smooth as possible. First, keep your letter short and fact-filled, avoiding long, emotional appeals.

Financial aid administrators don’t 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.

To that end, make sure to include a breakdown of figures illustrating how much you’ll be falling short. Your job is to demonstrate your financial need as clearly as possible. However, don’t feel the need to request a specific number; instead, leave the calculating to the administrator.

Although this process might feel like a negotiation, you should avoid calling it a bargaining process. Instead, use the accepted lingo and refer to it as a “professional judgment” or “appeal.”

By approaching your appeal in the right way, you’ll know you’ve done everything you can to gain more financial aid. In the end, your chances of success depend on your school and your situation. Some colleges don’t negotiate at all. Others do, but not with everyone.

Even if you’ve done everything right, the decision to distribute more financial aid ultimately lies in the hands of the college.

Appealing the appeal

Unfortunately, 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.

At the same time, you can’t necessarily expect a ton more financial aid. If approved, your appeal may only mean an extra couple of thousand dollars. Still, 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 that help offered isn’t enough. It’s not because they don’t care, though: Financial aid administrators just need more information.

That’s why when you ask for more financial aid, your focus should be on explaining the details of your situation as honestly and completely as possible.

Other options for paying for college

If your appeal for financial aid is unsuccessful, you do have other options for paying for college. First, make sure to apply far and wide to scholarships.

You could win a scholarship for various reasons, including grades, athletics or community service. Since you don’t have to pay back a scholarship, it’s the best type of aid to help you pay for college.

After you’ve exhausted the search for scholarships, other gift aid and work-study programs, another option to cover a gap in funding is private student loans. Look for reputable lenders with competitive rates, like College Ave or LendKey.

Keep in mind that you’ll likely need a cosigner to qualify for a private student loan. Before you sign any paperwork, make sure to read over the terms and conditions.

If you aren’t able to secure more federal financial aid, don’t lose hope. You do have other options to cover tuition bills, as long as you’re careful about how much student debt you take on.

Rebecca Safier and Andrew Pentis contributed to this report.

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