Students with the best chance of upping a financial aid award typically have concrete reasons for the second look. A vague complaint that the family can't afford the price won't cut it. The formulas that determine a family's expected share of costs aren't perfect, so one way to persuade an aid officer to open the college's wallet again is to show that the formulas overestimated your family's ability to pay. Here are some arguments that aid officers say they'll seriously consider:
This year's income will not be as high as last year's. College aid formulas assume that family income will be fairly steady from year to year. Any family that has experienced a job loss or a downturn in a family business, or will be receiving less overtime pay, should ask the school to rerun the numbers with a more conservative estimate for this year's income. "We will consider looking at estimated income for the coming year, especially if someone has lost their job," says Van Ess. But aim for as accurate a guess as possible. "We may review that [the estimate] after the first semester before we give them second semester aid," he adds. "If the income is higher than they estimated, we may even ask them to give back some of the first-semester money."
The family has extraordinary expenses. The aid formulas allow a standard amount to cover household expenses, based on family size. But using his or her right to exercise "professional judgment," an aid officer can reduce the family contribution by counting atypical spending. "We're eager to consider nondiscretionary extenuating circumstances," says James Belvin, director of financial aid at Duke University. Those circumstances might include helping pay for a grandparent's nursing home care, graduate school for an older sibling or private school for a younger sibling, funeral expenses, or hefty legal or unreimbursed medical bills. But the family won't get much sympathy for discretionary spending like a blowout wedding or bar mitzvah, mortgage payments on a vacation home, or even sizable credit card bills. Aid officers generally view high credit card balances as reflective of debt taken on by choice, not by necessity.
Family finances have changed significantly because of a death, divorce, or disability. Aid officers often boost awards in response to such family emergencies, the very situations the appeal process was designed to remedy. "We're happy to step up to the plate and consider it in detail," says Belvin.
The cost of attendance will be higher than budgeted. Can you argue that the school missed the mark in deciding how much money it would take to get home for winter and summer breaks? That special equipment to accommodate a learning disability or other special need will have to be purchased? That additional travel and personal expenses will be incurred during a semester abroad? Again, asking an aid officer to increase the cost of attendance can improve aid eligibility.
In any event, families should be prepared to document their appeal with tax forms, pay stubs, receipts, or other evidence of the new financial situation. Also, be aware that asking for special consideration may spur extra scrutiny of the original financial aid application. In other words, the family may be asked to document any previous data supplied.