I hope that everyone is home, safe, and washing their hands a lot! Yesterday we learned that bacon is not being hoarded, at least not in Portland, when out of the blue we got a notification that several week-old online grocery delivery attempts were going to be filled. The one item that was not out of stock in any of them was bacon. Our kitchen will look like an episode of Chopped based on the range of “substitutions” we received, but everything will have bacon on top.

On a more serious note: Many families’ financial circumstances will have changed from the time they completed the FAFSA to the start of the the 2020-2021 school year. However, your financial aid award will be based on the data the school received in your FAFSA. That means you may need to negotiate your aid award. Your odds of success will be better if you understand both the type of aid you’re being offered and the process for appealing.

If you have need-based aid, the appeals process is called Professional Judgement (PJ). The Higher Education Act allows schools the “authority to make adjustments, on the basis of documentation, to allow for treatment of an individual with special circumstances.” Note that schools have the authority to make changes, not the obligation. PJ has some specific requirements:

  • Any changes must be supported with documentation. That may include confirmation of a job loss, current investment account statements showing lower balances, receipts from medical care, etc.
  • Financial aid administrators can modify elements of the EFC formula (such as income, assets or medical expenses) but not the formula itself.
  • Like all need-based financial aid, PJ is for a single school year. If your current circumstances make your first-choice school completely unaffordable, remember that every year you will have to reapply so now could be a good time to reconsider the school overall.

And of course remember that aid awards are subject to the school’s aid packaging, which may include loans and work study in addition to grants. So a student who initially did not receive any aid might appeal and receive a direct student loan as her aid award. Furthermore, many schools will find their budgets under a great deal of stress: housing refunds, declines in international student enrollment, meal plan rollovers and costs of shifting to online education are a few such stressors that come to mind. That may translate to lower overall aid budgets, even as more and more students find themselves in need of financial aid.

Merit awards offer schools far more flexibility. However, these budgets are similarly under pressure. Endowment values have declined, as has school income– it’s not unusual for housing to provide 15% or more of a school’s revenue. On the other hand, with questions about whether international student visas will be available for new students this fall (and whether such students would come, if so), many schools will find themselves under-enrolled and thus may be willing to increase merit awards to improve yield. Here are some steps you can take to increase your chances on a merit aid appeal:

  • Research the school’s merit aid policies so that you are approaching the appeal based on the school’s policies. For example, a student who finds that a nominally higher GPA would have yielded a much larger scholarship might appeal on the basis of having chosen a more academically-rigorous courseload.
  • Research the school’s overall financial aid policies and awards on a site like the College Board or Collegedata. That will give you a sense of what the school offers and on what criteria. Here is an example from the College Board website (for Lewis & Clark College). As you can see, the school offered aid to all students who were judged to have need, but only met full need for 41% of students.
  • Here’s the same school’s data set from Collegedata, which shows that about 1/4 of students without need received a merit award:
  • Provide copies of aid awards from other, comparable schools who are offering you more. Many colleges will happily provide $2,000-$3,000 extra if they have reason to believe that will get you to accept and come on board for the next four years.
  • Appeal in writing, with a polite letter that both expresses gratitude for what’s already been offered and provides a detailed rationale for why you deserve more. And of course, the appeal letter must be written by the student.