What They Do When You Ask for More

A look at how one state school handled three aid appeals.

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University of Maryland Financial Aid Director Sarah Bauder and her team at work.

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Bauder returns to her two-screened computer. A few clicks bring up the student's entire file: Test scores and grades are just average for UMD. Bauder also notes that the student, who does not live in Maryland, had a FAFSA sent to several colleges in the family's home state. She notes that the student listed UMD seventh on the FAFSA, which she believes means it is almost a last-choice school. "It's subliminal," she explains. "I know my kid put the school he wanted first on that list."

Decision: Bauder will call the admissions director to see if there's any reason to make an exception for this student. If not, Bauder will call the mother and deliver the bad news that UMD won't offer any additional aid. "This would be the wrong school. She can't afford it. I think the student should go in-state."

CASE 3

The Independent Student. Aid counselor Sharon Hollingsworth asks what to do about a local student who wants to be declared "independent" and receive financial aid based solely on her own meager earnings, rather than her parents' higher income.

Since many families try this gambit to shield the parents' income, the federal government has set out strict rules limiting independence generally to students who are at least 24, or orphans, or veterans, or married, or parents themselves. Colleges can make exceptions in extraordinary circumstances, but because Bauder suspects that in most cases, the parents really are supporting the child, she rejects about 80 percent of independence appeals.

A letter from a pastor, however, confirms that the student lives with a relative because both parents are gone. One appears to have abandoned her completely. The other has returned to an overseas homeland.

Unfortunately, federal rules require aid officials to count the free room and board the student receives from her relative as a resource. That, plus her several hundred dollars a month in wages, puts her over the Pell grant threshold. "There is a disincentive for working," Bauder laments.

Decision: Hollingsworth will call the student to get more information about the parents to see if staying as a dependent might actually qualify the student for more aid. Bauder will also consider awarding the student a maximum University of Maryland grant of $3,800.

For hardworking, needy students like this one, Bauder increasingly phones the university's fundraising office. "I call to see if they have any donors" interested in helping out individual students.

She's hopeful that such calls will enable her to ease the burden for more students in the future. "The public has really heard the cry" and is ponying up more donations for financial aid, she says.