Didn't Get Enough Financial Aid For College? You Can Ask For More Money

Jan 17, 2021
Originally published on January 19, 2021 4:51 pm

Last spring, the pandemic stole Maddie Harvey's job on campus in the Dean of Students office. She was finishing up her senior year at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and without the income from her job, she wasn't going to have enough money to pay her upcoming tuition bill.

"It was definitely a very vulnerable situation that I was in," says Harvey, "it's not easy to talk about when you're struggling, especially knowing that so many people were struggling at one time."

Through some Internet research, she discovered a tool called SwiftStudent that would help her craft a financial aid appeal letter to her college. In it, Harvey requested money for her studies, and outlined all her expenses. It was nerve-wracking to air her personal financial situation. And the stakes were high: If she didn't receive more money, she was afraid she wouldn't be able to pay her tuition bill. Finally, she heard a response: Her appeal had worked. Her college offered her about $2,000 more for the semester. She says that money "made a big difference and allowed me to graduate on time."

Millions of students may find themselves in the same boat as Harvey — saddled with unexpected expenses or pandemic related job losses that impact their ability to pay for college. And a student's financial aid package might not be enough to cover their costs because of the way the federal aid system is set up: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA — the form which determines a student's eligibility for financial aid for college — uses tax data from 2019. Unfortunately, the world looked very different back then, pre-pandemic.

It's a concern that's come up with many of the high school students that Danny Tejada, a college advisor at a private school in St. Louis, works with.

But, Tejada says, there's hope for students and families worried the FAFSA doesn't capture their financial situation. "The one thing that people don't really know about is that, yeah, you can appeal financial aid packages that don't live up to what the actual reality of things are," he says. "Whatever first offer you get doesn't have to be the final."

After you submit your financial aid application, college financial aid officers have the ability to reconsider aid packages when financial situations change, unexpected expenses emerge, or a person's circumstances are not fully captured on their FAFSA. It's officially called professional judgement, though most refer to it as the appeals process, and it's a power handed down by Congress.

And in a year like no other, colleges are bracing for an influx of student requests. Tejada says that works to a student's advantage. "A lot of people [at the college you're applying to] know what's happening right now. So no one is in their own bubble," he says. "But the most important thing is that you speak up about it."

In October, a survey from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators found that about 60% of financial aid offices at more than 200 colleges saw an increase in appeal requests between March 1 and Sept. 21 compared to the previous year. A third of respondents saw students' requests more than double.

"The financial aid office is your friend in this process," explains Karla Weber, who works in the financial aid office at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "I think sometimes we get made out to be the ones that are hiding or hoarding this money from students, where it's really just the opposite."

Her office saw an uptick in appeals through the spring and summer and is anticipating more to come. "2020 has been a crazy year for a lot of people," Weber says, and the most important thing for students to do is communicate with the colleges they've applied to. "Let them know, 'Hey, something's happened. Our finances are just a little bit different now. What can we do to let you know so you can take a second look?'"

Despite its increased use during the pandemic, the appeals process is "a black box from a transparency perspective," explains Abigail Seldin, who helped create SwiftStudent. The U.S. Department of Education doesn't collect data from colleges showing how much additional aid is given, which students appeal or which students are funded after submitting a request. In a recent op-ed in Inside Higher Ed, researchers from the Education Trust say this lack of transparency "raises questions about how subjective and susceptible to bias professional judgments might be."

There are also limitations for how schools can adjust a student's aid package, based on the cost of attendance and the estimated amount a family can pay. And then there's the fact that institutions only have so much money to offer, especially at a time when many colleges have issued layoffs, seen budget cuts and taken revenue hits from low enrollment.

Still Maddie Harvey, who had her financial appeal granted and successfully completed her bachelor's degree last May, says you'll never know if you don't ask: "My biggest takeaway from this experience is that it's OK to admit that you need help."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Many students heading to college fill out the federal financial aid form known as the FAFSA. It can unlock scholarships and grants and loans to pay for school. The FAFSA looks at recent data to establish income. And this year, that's through 2019 taxes, which means it misses any financial hit caused by, say, a global pandemic. Well, NPR's Elissa Nadworny says there's something you can do about that.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Despite all the change of 2020, with job losses and health concerns, food and housing insecurity, you still have to use your old tax info for the FAFSA. But that doesn't mean you're stuck getting less financial aid than you need.

DANNY TEJADA: The one thing that people don't really know about is that, yeah, you can appeal financial aid packages that don't live up to what the actual reality of things are.

NADWORNY: Danny Tejada is a college adviser in St. Louis, Mo. He says many of his students have come to him and said, hey, my family's financial situation has changed a bunch from those numbers I put on the FAFSA. His response - this happens a lot, especially for this last year. So for colleges, this won't be a surprise.

TEJADA: A lot of people know what's happening right now. No one is in their own bubble. But the most important thing is that you speak up about it.

NADWORNY: When he says speaking up about it, he means connecting with the colleges students have applied to and telling them about changes in their circumstances because college financial aid officers have the ability to reconsider aid packages when financial situations change or unexpected expenses emerge or if circumstances aren't fully captured on the FAFSA. It's officially called professional judgment, and it's a power handed down by Congress.

KARLA WEBER: The financial aid office is your friend in this process.

NADWORNY: Karla Weber works in the financial aid office at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

WEBER: I think sometimes we get made out to be the ones that are, you know, hiding or hoarding this money from students where it's really just the opposite.

NADWORNY: She says colleges know what a hard year 2020 has been. And so for students, it's important to reach out and say...

WEBER: Hey, something's happened. Our finances are just a little bit different now. What can we do to let you know so you can take a second look?

NADWORNY: Her university, like a lot of colleges, has seen an uptick in these appeals for more aid. And she anticipates that's going to continue through the winter and the spring. We don't have good federal data on how often this process works, but counselors say, in many cases, it's worth it.

Calling a college or writing them a letter about your personal financial struggles might seem daunting, but there are free tools to help guide you. One is called SwiftStudent. It provides a template for students updating schools on their financial situation. That's what Maddie Harvey used last spring when she lost her job on campus due to the pandemic. She was trying to finish her degree in communications and justice and peace studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. But that lost income - she needed it to pay her tuition bill.

MADDIE HARVEY: It was definitely a very vulnerable situation that I was in. I mean, it's not easy to talk about when you're struggling, especially knowing that so many people were struggling at one time.

NADWORNY: The online tool Harvey used helped her craft a financial aid appeal letter to her college, requesting more money for her studies. And it worked. Her college offered her about 2,000 more dollars for the semester, enough to cover her bill.

HARVEY: My biggest takeaway from this experience is that, like, it's OK to admit that you need help.

NADWORNY: She says if you never ask for more, you'll never get it.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.