About 3/4 of financial aid appeals result in the student receiving additional aid, according to Sallie Mae’s How America Pays for College. And yet, less than half of families appeal their aid award. There’s no harm in appealing: any college that has admitted your student wants them to attend, and asking for more money won’t change that. 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. With the FAFSA (and CSS Profile) based on prior-prior year income and your aid award being based on those submissions, it goes without saying that plenty of families find themselves in a different financial position than what’s reflected on their FAFSA and Profile.

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.

Merit awards offer schools far more flexibility, since these are the school’s own dollars that they can use as they see fit. 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.
Sample Financial Aid Distribution
  • Here’s the same school’s data set from Collegedata, which shows that about 1/3 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 though of course the parent can supply the supporting documentation.

There is one group of schools where it’s hard to appeal successfully: public colleges. Your best bet at a public college is usually to show that you might have been eligible for a larger merit award if the award were calculated differently. For example, if the college uses unweighted GPA to award merit scholarships and the student took a full load of advanced classes that resulted in an unweighted GPA just below the threshold, an appeal might succeed.

Need help sorting through your financial aid awards and developing an appeal? My book, How to Pay for College, has a worksheet to compare awards and detailed instructions on how to frame your appeal.