The spring of 2020 brought a lot of change for high school seniors and college students, but not the kind that most could have envisioned or wanted. Instead of enjoying graduation celebrations and taking on internships, the COVID-19 pandemic has left students stuck at home wondering about an uncertain future.
The life plans that the coronavirus has forced everyone to reconsider often contain a financial element. For these students, one of the questions that looms largest is painfully straightforward: Can I still afford to attend college in the fall?
The pandemic has drastically changed the college experience this year. Here’s how to get more financial aid if you need it.
Changes to Income Make Financial Aid Applications Outdated
Each year, current and prospective college students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to determine their eligibility for financial aid. As part of this calculation, the FAFSA form asks students and their families to report tax information from two years earlier. Often referred to as “prior-prior year” income, this historical data enables students to make informed college decisions earlier in the process than they would be able to with more recent financial data.
Amid the pandemic, though, the annual income projections for some families now look very different than they did two years ago. Families who have lost jobs or received cuts in income may qualify for more aid than the FAFSA first calculated.
Plus, colleges and universities are in the process of rolling out their fall plans, and many will offer primarily or only virtual classes. This unexpected reality has prompted some students to demand discounts, plan gap years or file lawsuits seeking refunds. But no matter how the cost vs. value debate unfolds, many students still planning to attend college will need increased assistance specific to their financial circumstances.
How to Appeal for More Financial Aid
The families who find themselves in this position do have options. Many students and parents aren’t aware that the financial aid process allows for adjustments and appeals. In fact, a student can appeal for new financial aid as often as his or her personal financial circumstances dictate, including during the middle of a semester.
Now, as colleges and universities become more concerned about their fall enrollment numbers, they’re laser-focused on maintaining revenue and holding on to high-caliber students. This dynamic makes them more willing than usual to negotiate with current and accepted students. However, students and their parents must act with a sense of urgency. High demand and rapidly changing circumstances mean that some sources of help may dry up in the months ahead.
Below are answers to some common questions about requesting more financial aid during the pandemic:
Why Would My School Allow Me to Pay Less Money This Fall?
As mentioned above, much of a school’s interest in negotiating will stem from supply-and-demand dynamics. If fewer students plan to attend a given school, that institution will have increased incentive to retain the students who show an interest in staying.
Your current school also realizes that they may be competing with other schools for your tuition dollars. If you’re a recent high school graduate and you show your school evidence that a competitor has offered you a better aid package, administrators may feel compelled to match or exceed that offer.
Which Types of Financial Aid Might My School Offer?
Colleges and universities offer two primary types of aid: need-based financial aid and merit-based financial aid. When a financial aid office agrees to adjust your need-based aid, you may find that it decreases your expected family contribution (EFC), or the amount colleges anticipate your family can pay for college costs. Your EFC is a number that financial aid departments calculate based on a formula established by law. The calculation factors in your family size; number of family members currently attending college; and the family's income, assets and benefits received.
An adjustment to your need-based aid also may increase your estimated cost of attendance (COA). Your COA is the total amount that you will need to pay to attend school, including: tuition and fees; room and board; books, supplies and transportation; and child care, among other relevant expenses. A reduction in your EFC and/or increase in your COA may make you eligible for additional federal student aid, such as subsidized student loans and work-study opportunities.
For merit-based aid, which stems from academic performance and other accomplishments, you may want to direct your inquiry to the admissions office. The decisions here often contain a more subjective dynamic. This means that you can feel free to explain to your school that an alternative institution costs less money or has extended you a more competitive merit-aid package. You can express your (sincere) hope that you’ll be able to attend the school, but also politely articulate the reasons why you have earned consideration for additional funding.
How Does the Financial Aid Appeals Process Work?
You first need to determine whether the changes in your financial circumstances warrant formally appealing for additional assistance. In general, colleges and universities will expect to learn that a major change outside of your control has occurred, such as a significant salary reduction, job loss, large out-of-pocket medical expense or increased child care cost. If you’re not sure whether your situation qualifies as a new need, call and/or e-mail the financial aid office directly to get their feedback.
From there, the process for each school differs slightly. Students should first check their school’s financial aid website for instructions on how to proceed. If the website lacks updated information or raises additional questions, the student should again contact the financial aid office. Due to the pandemic, pre-existing financial aid policies and rules continue to change so quickly that a student should reach out even when a website claims that a specific deadline has passed.
Jill Desjean, a policy analyst for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), believes that not reaching out to the school’s financial aid office at the outset is the most common mistake that students in this situation make.
“Students may just send a letter or email with unnecessary information that doesn’t help their request,” she says. “If they had checked the financial aid office website or spoken with an administrator, they would have been able to address their specific situation and get the exact direction that they need.”
Once you feel like you have made progress, though, you should continue to remain proactive. Over both email and the phone, continue to check in with your financial aid administrators to confirm your status and make sure that you’re providing everything they need in a complete and timely manner.
What Documents Will I Need to Submit to Support My Financial Aid Appeal?
All colleges and universities, no matter their specific process, will want to see documentation that supports your family’s aid request. This verification phase begins with an appeal document, which may be an official form (sometimes called a “report of special circumstances”) that the school provides, and/or a free-form letter that you draft.
With the letter, you most likely will email the financial aid office, including a PDF version with your supporting files. The signed letter will explain your family’s financial changes since you filled out your initial financial aid application. You should limit the letter to a single page; use bullet points to organize relevant, specific information; and emphasize politeness over demands. You’re most likely to maximize your aid if you can clearly outline the dates and dollar amounts that tie to the financial hardship you describe.
Along with the letter, you will want to attach any documents that back up your request, including a termination letter, unemployment paperwork, medical bills, bank statements and/or information associated with a new child care provider.
Desjean, the NASFAA policy analyst, thinks that good record-keeping is the most valuable action that students can take amid the pandemic. Whether or not you’re seeking additional financial aid right now, you need to prepare for that situation—especially since it has become so much more challenging and time-consuming to complete tasks like notarizing documents.
I’ve Got My Hands Full These Days. How Can Technology Help Me With This Process?
Several organizations have launched digital platforms that seek to make the financial aid process more transparent and less time-consuming. They include:
SwiftStudent, which helps students to understand appeal options, eligibility and supporting documentation. This platform includes technology that automatically generates an appeal letter based on data that the student enters.
Educate to Career, which focuses on how students can become better negotiators in this context. This tool arms students with financial aid data (e.g., average tuition paid and average grant size) from colleges throughout the country to inform their appeal.
TuitionFit, which lets students upload their financial aid award letters to compare against what other students received from similar schools. This platform also allows colleges to make offers directly to students based on their need and academic program.
I’m Not Sure if I Should Ask for Help. Is There a Downside?
In this challenging, uncertain situation, you shouldn’t think twice about reaching out to colleges and universities to ask for help. In fact, you should request an aid package review even if you didn’t previously qualify for any financial aid.
No matter what response you receive initially, you should continue to reach out in the months ahead, as both your personal finances and the pandemic itself continue to shift. At various points in time, schools may not have any additional aid to offer you. That may not always be the case, though, and administrators won’t rescind an admittance offer or previous financial aid award letter just for asking for more help.
All students and parents will need to remain patient and flexible as everyone involved determines their next steps. Despite the limitations that colleges and universities across the country face, your financial aid office is there to help you. They want to make sure that those opportunities you planned on pursuing are still available to you in the months and years ahead.