Appealing Financial Aid Offers
The current pandemic has caused millions of families to experience a change in finances, and that can affect how much a family can invest in a child's college education. As high school seniors evaluate their college financial aid offers and bottom line costs, they may wonder if they can request additional financial aid from the colleges offering them admission. On this episode of The MEFA Podcast, MEFA's Associate Directors of College Planning Jonathan Hughes and Jonathan Sparling break down everything you need to know about appealing your financial aid offer including how to appeal, who should appeal, how colleges are handling appeals, if you can submit deposits at more than one school, and what deferment might mean for your financial aid. If you enjoy the MEFA Podcast, please leave us a review.
Resources Mentioned in this Episode
Jonathan Hughes: And welcome to the second episode of the navigating the course to college podcast. My name is Jonathan. I am the associate director of college planning and education at MEFA, which essentially means that I help Massachusetts families and families all over to pay and save and plan for college.
With me as always is Jonathan Sparling.
Jonathan Sparling: Jonathan. Yes. Hi everyone. Uh, Jonathan Sparling here. So also associate director of college planning and education at MEFA. Uh, I work very closely like Jonathan does with community partners helping, uh, talk about the college planning, saving, and financing. I also worked very closely with colleges throughout the Commonwealth and across the country to make sure that they are well aware of everything that, uh, everything we offer.
[Jonathan Hughes: Yeah, this is exciting. This is our second podcast episode. And today we're going to be talking about appealing your financial aid. A very timely topic of course, and relevant in any year. But in this year in particular, given the COVID-19 pandemic, it's especially relevant. Um, we have, we hosted a webinar, which we'll talk about later on.
That really in attendance showed really that a lot of parents are concerned with this and we're going to be going through this appeals process. So we'll talk about how they can do that. And what's the best way. And, and when families should be looking to appeal it, their financial aid award. But before that, Um, I’ll kick it over to Jonathan, because there's been some news since we last spoke about, uh, college plans and how colleges are looking to adapt to the COVID-19 landscape for the upcoming year.
So Jonathan, what happened since last time we spoke?
Jonathan Sparling: Sure. So, so thanks, Jonathan. Yeah, I, you know, its, it's definitely the, the news is coming in rapidly. Um, we are hearing through kind of the national media, uh, as well as just the conversations that we have with, uh, you know, the college folks in Massachusetts.
I guess one of the big ones is that. Um, we are hearing, you know, now that the May 1st deadline has passed, um, and most of the class of 2020 has made the decision. We're starting to hear more from colleges about their plans for the fall. Um, and as you can imagine, colleges are considering all options, including shifting to online classes for the start of fall, uh, moving to modular style classes, um, and, you know, most are, you know, planning to be on campus in the fall, but, you know, certainly figuring out the best way to do it safely.
So as we kind of go along, uh, more and more colleges are thinking about what fall will look like, you know, I think, I think one of the takeaways we got from the webinar, which we'll talk about later, but one of the panels shared that really for this past spring, you know, when this all started the goal of colleges was to keep students safe. Right. And so that was their primary concern, was safety. So that, you know, the rapid campus closures are the rapid move to online. It was all done very quickly. Uh, and so now with more time to plan ahead for the fall, you know, certainly colleges want to be in person, but they are, you know, making all contingency plans for sure.
Jonathan Hughes: Right. And is there a, uh, from what we're hearing so far from the colleges that are planning on welcoming students to the campus in the fall, you mentioned a few different options. Um, is there a more popular option so far, uh, for a mode for colleges to, to be able to do that, that you've noticed?
Jonathan Sparling: So it's kind of all over the board, um, in terms of, you know, so I wouldn't say there was a necessarily a more popular option.
I, I would, I would say the most popular would want to be on campus. Um, for sure. Um, but you know, I think one, ones that stick, one that is sticking out in my mind, I don't know if it's necessarily the most popular, but would be to, um, I think about, you know, traditionally students are taking five classes a semester over the course of 14 weeks, maybe tightening those semesters to shorter seven week terms.
Um, and then only taking two or three courses per term. And so what that does is it allows you to, you know, if the classes do need to be delivered virtually you're only juggling two or three classes versus five. Um, so it ended, it allows colleges, let's say they had to be closed for the first quarter of fall. Or they had to be, when I say closed, I mean, virtual, uh, they could then welcome students back the second half and, and not really disrupt that learning. Um, again, another big or another, uh, piece of news that came down last week was, uh, had to do with really a reassessment of testing policy. So, um, on Wednesday of last week, NACAC, which is the national association for college admission counseling, uh, professional organization. They, um, you know, they express some concerns about testing companies, uh, proposals for at home administration of the act and act later this year, uh, as well as some of the revamped AP advanced placement exams that high school students, um, will take online in May.
Um, you know, these tests traditionally are allowed to be, are offered in person. Certainly. And so, you know, I think that, that kind of the main concern from that standpoint is what does this mean from an equality standpoint, as well as a testing fair practices standpoint, um, and you know, really, if, if all of these tests are being moved online, um, you know, does everyone have the same access to take these?
Um, not only access to a computer, but also, um, you know, an environment where they could, it could be quiet. Again, you know, the, for the, on the SAT side, uh, you know, the, the college board is as committed to making sure that they're working with folks from across socioeconomic backgrounds. Um, but just something to keep an eye on.
I would say for our families, as they are, um, thinking about and looking at both those ACT and SAT tests and what that might look like, um, from a virtual standpoint.
Jonathan Hughes: The other side to that is some colleges and some state university systems are switching to a test optional platform. Is that something that they are suggesting colleges do or urging colleges to adopt?
Jonathan Sparling: It's definitely on the table. For, you know, and, and, and the move to test optional has, you know, it's been around for a number of years now. Some schools have already announced that they are test optional even before this whole COVID-19 situation. But I think it certainly has, um, you know, certainly ramped the conversation back up.
And, um, you know, so I think that you may see more and more colleges announced that they are going to be a test optional. And then the last big, there were a lot of, lot of developments last week. So I won't say the last big one, but the last time we were given, I thought we would share, is that we are hearing from more and more colleges that they are waiving or reducing their deposit.
If the schools that you're still balancing have, um, pushed out their deadlines. And so you still haven't committed yet? Um, I would just check to see, check to see if it's been reduced, um, or even waived. And, um, you know, just so you're, you're following all that, but I'm sure that's, that's been communicated pretty well.
So just another way that we are seeing colleges kind of adapt to this because, um, you know, I think they're doing it for a couple of reasons. Number one, we know that, um, finances are, can be a bit of a concern for parents and families right now. Um, but also I think. You know, from the college's standpoint, you know, potentially reducing or waving that allows, uh, more students to, I guess, uh, you know, kind of commit to the university, um, and, and make that decision.
But, you know, As we always say, uh, the, in most cases the admission deposit is just a small fraction of what your total cost is going to be. So, you know, we always encourage families that, you know, to think about financing. Think about the two year or four year commitment, uh, whatever that might be, uh, because in most cases, Uh, even the normal, the normal admission deposit would be, uh, uh, you know, a fraction of total cost.
Jonathan Hughes: So we're gonna start a new segment now where we ask, we're going to ask listeners or viewers, or however you're ingesting this information to send us questions. And so you can send us questions, whether it's for podcast or whether it's not for the podcast to collegeplanning@MEFA.org.
And so since we're going to be talking about financial aid appeals today, I thought we would read some questions that we've received over the past week or so regarding appealing financial aid awards. So we have one here from a woman who is a mother of a high school senior.
And she says, we as a family have it down to one private college now, or that was right down to one. And we plan to put a deposit down by May 1st. Our first appeal was requested due to our family's financial situation changing due to reduction in income. Unfortunately, fairly common at this time.
They increased the grant money, which is good. As we said, grants and scholarships, the best kind of financial aid, it's free money. It does not have to be repaid, it's gift aid. And our second appeal. So they appeal twice in a letter written by our daughter. They also increased the grant money again. But they changed our daughters federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans.
They were $3,500 for the subsidized and $2,000 for the un-subsidized. Now they're $1,758 for the subsidized and $3,742 for the un-subsidized so basically that is a, uh, a reduction in the amount of the subsidized loan and the subsidized loan is the more attractive of the two because there's no interest being added on that loan while the loan is in deferment.
And the student's not making payments on the loan. There's no interest being added to that balance. Stays the same, whereas on an unsubsidized loan, there is interest being added to that amount. So they got more grant money on the one hand, but on the other hand, they got an increase un-subsidized amount versus a subsidize amount.
So they were curious as to why that happened. So I don't know if Jonathan, you want to talk about why that may be and what the reason for that is.
Jonathan Sparling: Yeah. So, you know, I think first of off, first off it's, it's great that the family was able to, um, to reach back out and the school was able to, um, provide some additional financial support in the way of, of, um, grant money.
That's huge. Um, but in terms of the, uh, kind of the change to the, to the loan amounts, um, so in the direct loan program, which is the loan program that's available to students. Uh, students are able to borrow a maximum amount every year, uh, and for freshmen year or their first year, that most for most students, it's $5,500.
There are some cases where you can get a little more, but we won't get into that. Cause the different situations, but, um, the, the traditional, and in this family, they had a total of $5,500 in that first financial aid offer. It was the $3,500 in the subsidize and the $2000 and the un-subsidized, um, basically what happened was because they got more grant money, their financial aid eligibility from a need based standpoint was reduced at that particular college. There's a standard formula that every college uses. It's gonna look a little bit different. Um, although the, the formulas standard, the inputs are going to be different because each school has a different cost.
So the cost of attendance is going to vary. Um, but basically what happened with this family was because they got more money, more scholarship money, it forced a change. And so that. That direct loan subsidized portion. That was $3,500 more of it moved over to an un-subsidized portion because the unsubsidized direct loan is a non need-based loan.
So it really, it's a, the reason that it happened. And I guess the short answer is that, um, you know, it's a standard formula that colleges need to abide by. Um, and it's yeah, I mean, for this particular family, they now have more unsubsidized loan money, which of the two is the less favorable one. But the reason it happened was because they got more grant money, a little bit of give and take there.
Jonathan Hughes: But I think on balance, probably a net positive for the family.
Jonathan Sparling: Oh, for sure. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Jonathan Hughes: Now, the next question that we have is very simple. And it says, somebody is saying that they have twins going to college, which even in the best of times is going to be rough sometimes. Yeah. But it's gotta be rougher than having one child.
And they have unfortunately experienced a job loss as well. Um, so that is very unfortunate and certainly. Sympathies to that parent and they want to know how to appeal and what their options are to pay. So as this is a more general question.
Why don't we branch into our main topic of appeal. Now, recently MEFA held an online panel to discuss appeals and we had as our guests, uh, financial aid directors.
Gail Holt at Amherst College. Kevin DeRuosi at Salem State University. Iris Godes at Dean College and Melissa Metcalf from Boston College. So what were your key takeaways? I know you watched the second night and I watched the first night.
Jonathan Sparling: You know, the, the big takeaways that I got was, um, was really the, I guess the first would be the, the mechanics of an appeal for lack of better words. And so, um, you know, the, the panelists spoke, um, very well about, you know, how they're going to differ from school to school. Have some schools will have a form, uh, how others, it might be just more of a, uh, a letter that you would send in. Um, there's also, there's also, um, you know, when it comes to the mechanics, I think a little bit more about.
Uh, the panel spoke about how they're bound by, uh, federal formulas sometimes when it comes to, uh, awarding funds and maybe increasing, um, awards. I know, um, we have a clip of, um, Melissa talking about some of those mechanics, um, you know, she's at Boston college. So I think we'll, you can take a listen here.
Video Clip: We all were required to use 2018 information for the initial award, but at Boston College, when it comes to an income appeal, what we do is project current year. So we would be looking at current 2020 information. Um, you know, what's happening right now and we would do so first. I would recommend people contact a financial aid counselor, either in writing or by phone.
Um, we would, then we have an appeal form. We would ask them to then fill out, um, providing projected figures. What have they earned up till now? And what do they project to earn or receive in income from now until the end of the year, and we would ask them to provide documentation, to support those figures.
Um, so that's generally how we would do an income appeal, but of course, there are some, you know, really unheard of situations happening right now. So, you know, we're willing to adjust, um, with each family situation, but every school is going to be doing this differently. I think.
Jonathan Hughes: So I think one thing that really jumped out at me from that is, um, something that I didn't really think about very often is something you mentioned.
It's something that if it's not on my mind, it's probably not in a lot of parents mind, either that, um, colleges really do have procedures and regulations that they are bound by. So I think a lot of times parents and you know, myself, even not knowing what goes on behind the scenes, you know, you know that there's, there's some kind of consideration that they're giving, but we might not be fully appreciative of, um, some of the considerations that colleges are bound by, especially ones that do, uh, only merit. Only need based aid versus merit based aid where it's sort of maybe a little bit easier to give out merit based aid. Um, you know, you don't do as many regulatory hoops as they do to increase need based aid. So I thought that that was really interesting.
Jonathan Sparling: Yeah. For sure. No, I think it's, it's, you know, it's certainly good to know and it's, it's good to understand kind of how it's handled from college to college.
Um, you know, another, another takeaway that I thought was really good was, you know, when thinking about appeals to really think about it within, you know, a four, um, or, or a two year context. So, um, you know, There, there's certainly a lot of focus. There's laser focus on families right now on getting into the college, which you've done and making the decision.
And there's, there's hyper focus on the current financial state, which is why most people appeal. Right. You know, you appeal because, um, there's been a change in your financial circumstances. That would be unforeseen. There's been a job loss, there's been unforeseen medical expenses, there's a lot of, a lot of reasons that you might appeal for more money. And so certainly appeals take place in the now, but I think to think about them and this, the panel did a good job. Think about them in the context of the entire college decision, right. Or the entire college, uh, education. Um, and you know, even if you were able to appeal and get a little bit money, more money from, uh, you know, need-based grant or a little bit more money in America based grant. Um, would that still be a sound financial decision to go to that college? And so I, you know, I think that's, and as I mentioned, it makes, it makes total sense for us to focus on the now, when it comes to the appeal. But, you know, as we talk about all the time at NEPA, you know, think about it in the larger context of the entire educational decision.
Um, and so, you know, ask yourself, even if I do appeal and get a little bit more money, is that still going to be enough? Um, and I still going to feel comfortable. Is it still a sound financial decision, uh, to go to that college?
Jonathan Hughes: Well, also too. I mean, I, I think a couple of folks mentioned on that panel, um, one year grants, right. And increase them one year grant. And so it is a good idea for parents. If they do see an increase in, whether it's a need based grant or merit based scholarship, to ask about the likelihood that this is going to be extended for me. So, um, that was, that was interesting. I think that that's right on. The other thing that I was thinking of too, that really interested me and it brought me back to a little bit of what we talked about in our first podcast when we we're hearing from families of, you know, sort of what would be hearing in any year, right.
They still have a college decision to make, and they're not really focusing on, on the COVID-19 outbreak. Well, colleges would still be managing appeals at this point. Right. So there'd be managing appeals on their incoming students and on their existing students, right.
Because students who are in college now, whether they're freshmen or sophomores or juniors, the seniors also have changes that they're dealing with. Right. And also need to go back to the financial aid office. And it's always a good idea. Even if you're a current student, if circumstances change to keep in touch with your financial aid office.
And I think we do have a clip of Kevin from Salem State talking about that. So why don't we take a listen to that?
Video Clip: Now what we've, what we've done at Salem State is we've kind of broken up our pills into three categories. Um, pre COVID, COVID, and incoming in fall. Right now we've shifted our focus to work specifically with students that are currently enrolled and being impacted by COVID in this current semester. So we've put aside, not put aside, but we've kind of pushed a little bit to the side, incoming and fall appeals. And our primary focus right now is just working on our currently enrolled students who are experiencing financial hardships and difficulties in this current semester to process their appeals as quickly as possible, and hopefully be able to get some additional financial support for them.
Jonathan Hughes: So good to hear that. And one thing that we haven't really talked about too, too much, that I do want to emphasize right now is how important documentation is. And it's mentioned a lot in that webinar. Do you want to talk about it? Somebody who's worked in a financial aid office, right? How important is documentation too? To this process?
Jonathan Sparling: Yeah. You know, it's, it's a huge, I guess is the, that's my word I'm gonna use, but yeah, it's, it's very important. Um, you know, I think
Jonathan Hughes: it's, I was looking for,
Jonathan Sparling: I know, I know that's what you were looking for. I was like, let me handle it. It's tip of my tongue, but no, seriously. I, you know, it's, um, for a number of reasons, as you can imagine, um, you know, documentation is important for the school records, uh, just to, for, to kind of have on file. So there, if there is any changes to financial aid and folks, you know, schools are constantly dealing with audits, especially when federal funds are involved. So just having that documentation of why changes were made, um, from an institutional standpoint, obviously documentation is important that if a school is increasing any merit money that they might have, um, again, just to have all of that in one place, um, is, is, is important.
And I mean, you know, as you can imagine, it helps the, the aid office get a clear picture of really what is, what is going on. So the more that you can provide from a documentation standpoint, um, the, the better that it will be. Or the easier time the college will have to sit down and actually make a sound assessment of your financial situation.
You know, when I was in, you know, when we would look at appeals, um, again, when I was working in an aid office, certainly it wasn't during pandemics though. Um, but we would, um, ask sometimes for tax returns both the most current year and previous year we might ask for, um, any unemployment documentation that could be provided.
We might also ask the family to put together just a, kind of a simple, um, family budget. And you know, you know, your finances tell one story, but perhaps the budget tells a little bit more cause aid offices are really limited in the, that initial data that they have. Um, it's a, so you know, the more that you can provide, just the more clear picture folks will have and, I think from a, um, from a, um, you know, uh, what's the word, um, I think from a consistency standpoint and able to kind of look from year to year, if you did have to appeal in year two or year three. Just having that documentation on file also helps to, uh, to look back as well.
Jonathan Hughes: That's a good point. That's a really good point.
Um, yeah, one thing also, just to sort of bring it back to general impressions was how busy financial aid offices are right now. So I know sometimes it's something that we hear from parents, that they have appealed and then they are still waiting to hear back. And they're maybe understandably anxious to hear back from financial aid.
But I believe the last figure I heard was some colleges are dealing with a, as much as a 20%, 22% increase in appeals. So this is something that they are working on and it's something that, um, as you heard in that clip from, uh, Kevin, there is a structure in place to prioritize students and prospective students.
Jonathan Hughes: So definitely something to keep in mind for parents who are understandably anxious. So what would you say, we've sort of focused on the school side of here, and now what would you say to parents who are looking to appeal?
Jonathan Sparling: So I think that to parents who are, who are looking to appeal, you know, a few things kind of come to mind.
Number one, I would say, uh, to, you know, start by looking at the colleges website to see what information they're asking for, um, how they prefer appeals to come in, um, try to follow those as well. As close as you can, um, by, you know, filling out the online form and sending it to the correct email address and kind of including all the documentation that the college asks for.
Um, so I think that, you know, starting with the college and see what they, what they, um, are requesting from an appeal side is, is kind of the first step. Um, you know, another thing that I would say to students and families is that. Although appeals sometimes do result in increased financial aid, um, to be realistic about it.
You know, from speaking with folks and, you know, um, at the colleges, you know, increases, um, if they do happen, especially on the grant and scholarship side, um, tend to be fairly modest, uh, in generally speaking, unless there was something huge missing. Uh, during the initial financial lead review, or if you had an extra zero on your income or something crazy, but you know what I mean?
I think that, I think kind of being realistic with yourself and realistic in kind of some of those expectations when it comes to appealing, um, is certainly, is certainly very important. Um, and then finally, you know, I would say to students and families that, um, you know, if you have submitted an appeal and you think you've done all the paperwork. Right. And you are, you know, anxiously waiting and, and you are, um, at that point where, um, you know, the results of the appeal could be the make or break decision point again, assuming your school has pushed out the, the decision to May 15th or June 1st or later. Um, you know, if it's been some time, call it a week, week and a half, it could be worthwhile to reach back out.
Um, and just, you know, something simple, Hey, submit an appeal. You know, we're, we're really hoping that you're able to review, um, you know, we're, we're anxiously waiting. Um, you know, to hear before we make a decision, I think that, um, you know, there's a lot of the panel has said, and as Jonathan said, there is a, April is normally the appeal season on the college campus and the financial aid office. And this year it's gone huge. I mean, it's, it's just, it's so much, it's so much busier. There's so much more to consider. Um, and so, you know, uh, a message won't hurt now, should you be calling and emailing every day? No, I wouldn't do that, but I, I would certainly it's worthwhile, you know, kind of reaching back out, just checking in.
Um, so yeah, that's what I would say to families.
Jonathan Hughes: And when you're thinking about sort of red flag items that you say definitely appeal this, you're looking at what type of thing, is job loss?
Jonathan Sparling: Yep. Job loss. Uh, definitely, uh, changes in income. You know, we know a lot of folks are dealing with reduced, um, reduction in salary based on COVID-19.
You know, I think another one would be an unexpected death, obviously in the family, uh, that could impact [00:30:00] finances. Um, you know, another one could be, um, you know, kind of unforeseen high medical expenses, which folks tend to usually know about. Ahead of time. Um, but if there's, if there's something that, um, if there's something that wasn't initially considered, um, you know, certainly doing, doing that.
Um, but those are kind of like the, the big ones from the financial standpoint. Um, You know, something, something less utilized, but certainly something that we're hearing. Um, and you and I were speaking before is, um, you know, families do reach out, reach back out, uh, simply to, um, because they got more money at another school.
Um, and so, you know, a couple of different schools of thought here, a couple of different ways that it will be, uh, handled at some colleges, but. You can certainly appeal your financial aid offer. If there haven't been major changes to your financial circumstances and just like, Hey, I'm appealing because this other university gave me more money.
Um, sometimes it'll work, sometimes it won't. So I think that it's, it's really, uh, it's really a college by college.
Jonathan Hughes: Yeah. And I feel like a lot of parents when they use the word appeal means specifically that, you know, can use another financial aid offer as leverage at your top choice school. I always tell them, you know, you can do what you want and you can, yes, you can do that. And as you say, it may or may not work. And I remember we had a big discussion with a lot of our ambassadors who work at college financial aid offices about how they handle it. When parents do that and no shock, it, it different from school to school.
So the school said. What I would say is, Oh, you got that great financial aid package from that college, you should go there. And some colleges will say, well, I would look at it and see what I could do. Um, so it really depends. I always tell parents. Make sure you tell the school how much your child wants to go to that at school.
Explain it's the first choice school. Um, you know, you've got this financial aid package from those other university. It would be great if you could do what you could do just to try to match it. Um, but also another great piece of advice that I got from one of our colleagues who worked in a financial aid office was financial aid offices.
Well, in her experience, they found it easier to meet a request and an actual, um, concrete number request. So they always like to see if a family had a plan in place to pay them college costs. So they knew that they were going to get an asset from this, uh, family member or they were going to embark amount.
Are they going to use this amount of savings? What they just needed was that extra X amount of dollars from the college. So obviously. Nothing is a guarantee, but that's an easier ask to a financial aid office then sort of just, just saying, what else can you do for me?
Jonathan Sparling: Yeah. I, you know, I think that's, that's a great point and that's certainly a good insight from that.
Um, you know, from that individual and, um, you know, I always like to say to that, that the aid offices aren't in the business of taking money away from you. Right. If you appeal, the kind of the worst that will happen is nope. Like, you know, it will obviously not be accepted unless of course you will appeal and your finances are way higher than that, you and I know what I mean.
Like if you appeal and you're like, actually I make, and it's like, which would have been uncovered anyway. So it's like, it's not, but again, that's so rare, you know, that, that almost, you know, I won't say never happens, but it very rarely happens. So, yeah, I mean, colleges are not in the business of taking money from students.
So yeah, I think the, you know, it's, it's, um, it will vary from school to school, um, and kinda how they handle that situation.
Jonathan Hughes: Well, financial aid officers are not in the business of taking money away from you is a great ending point. So unless you have anything else.
Jonathan Sparling: No, I, uh, I think I'm good now.
Jonathan Hughes: All right. Well that about does it for MEFA’s navigating the course to college for this week. If you want to talk to us, please remember you can visit www.mefa.org for tools and guidance on all aspects of college and career readiness. You can also call us at one 800-449-MEFA. And email us once again, that's email@example.com with any questions that you may have.
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