During the boom years, the nation's college financial aid officers used to swap tales about trivial, selfish appeals for more aid that students and parents occasionally filed, like the father who wanted more grants for his daughter because he'd just spent $25,000 on another daughter's wedding and the mother who demanded more scholarships for her child so the mother could spend her savings on a cruise.
Not this year. Colleges say they are being flooded with all-too-serious appeals for additional aid. And many colleges say they are scraping together extra grants or scholarships for the vast majority of appealers who can document a decline in income or an increase in expenses. But financial aid offices warn anyone with hidden income not to assume that appeals are risk-free: Appealers whose tax and other documents show that they falsified aid applications can lose all their aid and be fined or even sent to prison.
Mary Smith-Hammond, who retired from her job as a financial aid officer for the University of California-Berkeley in 2007, was called back this year to help with a big jump in appeals. She estimates that she has approved more aid for about 85 percent of the appeals she has processed so far, up from a historical average of about 50 percent. "The unemployment rate wasn't as high back then. And we had different standards," she says. Smith-Hammond, who long ago denied the appeal from the mother who wanted to save her money for a cruise, says she is even approving appeals for students whose parents last year reported incomes of about $400,000 but this year are collecting unemployment insurance. "Their stocks are gone, their 401(k) is gone. They may only keep their house for another year," she says. Some have seen their industries get wiped out, reducing the chances they'll find another high-paying job. "I have not seen an appeal that was frivolous" yet this year, Smith-Hammond says.
Normally, colleges award financial aid for each academic year based on a family's financial situation in the previous year, as reported by the family on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. But the U.S. Department of Education this spring asked colleges to help those whose parents have lost their jobs or suffered a pay cut in 2009 by estimating a family's need for aid based on this year's lower income instead. Aid officers are also taking into account expenses that aren't reported on the FAFSA, such as medical bills.
Students or parents who feel they have a real need for extra aid will have more luck if they follow these Dos and Don't's suggested by Smith-Hammond and several other veteran aid officers.
- Make sure you've filed all the necessary aid applications. If you haven't done so already, fill out the FAFSA. If your college is one of the 300 or so that also requires the College Board's CSS/Financial Aid Profile, fill that out as well. If you have filed the aid applications, check them to make sure they accurately represent last year's finances.
- Check your college's financial aid Web page. Some have instructions or forms for filing an appeal. If you don't see any instructions, call the office and ask for help.
- Send a letter to your college's financial aid office asking for a "professional judgment" review of your award. Give specific reasons why you need more aid. "Give actual numbers. Don't just say, 'My medical expenses are high,' " explains Patricia Williams, director of financial aid at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md. "Detail what the medical costs are, how much insurance paid, and how much you paid. We work with formulas that require real numbers."
- Provide documentation for your claims, such as copies of W-2s, tax forms, hospital bills, and the like.
- Send the appeal and documentation as soon as possible. Some aid is first come, first served. "When the money has been committed, the school may not be able to offer (latecomers) any assistance," says Pat Watkins, director of financial aid for Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.