If your financial aid letter came in a bit leaner than you had expected, there’s one way you may be able to quickly and easily jack it up: Ask for more.
Although as a matter of principle most schools won’t negotiate with students to increase their financial aid, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let them know why you need more cash. Almost every school in the country is willing to make concessions for students with extenuating circumstances.
It is not a widely known aspect of the financial aid process, but the Higher Education Act empowers aid administrators to make corrections and adjustments — sometimes drastic ones — to the information used to calculate a student’s need. Called “professional judgment,” the provision allows aid counselors to change the numbers fed into the standard aid formulas, and in most cases, reduce the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC.
The act stipulates that while administrators are prohibited from changing the actual formula, they are given wide breadth to make adjustments for anything “unusual” that applies to a particular student.
In the most drastic cases, schools are even allowed to declare some students independent of their parents, which can potentially mean a huge bump in available financial aid.
How the process works
Before any appeal can begin, everyone must first file the official federal financial aid form, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
When the FAFSA is processed, each student will receive a Student Aid Report, or SAR. The key number on each SAR is the Expected Family Contribution. That EFC will determine eligibility for most aid programs ranging from the subsidized Direct and Stafford Loans to the Pell Grant and other school-based awards.
So, what do you do if your financial picture looks better on paper than in reality? That’s where a request for a professional judgment review comes in.
The first step in trying to reduce your EFC is to gather your evidence and start typing. Each family should write a personalized letter to their school financial aid office explaining their extenuating circumstances. In nearly every case, the more evidence you can offer, the better shape you will be in.
This is the place to explain that while your family’s reported income of $50,000 on the previous year’s taxes looks good, it doesn’t account for a recent layoff.
Counselors will take this letter, weigh it along with your supporting evidence and decide if the numbers need to be adjusted and recalculated. Don’t even think about lying here; you really want to stay on your counselor’s good side, but more about that later.
“Basically, if there are unusual circumstances in a family’s financial situation — really anything that distinguishes that family from other families or that distinguish a prior year from upcoming year — that is what needs to go in the appeal letter,” says Mark Kantrowitz, financial aid and college planning author and publisher of FinAid.com, an online financial aid resource.
In cases such as a layoff or reduced overtime, the counselor can adjust the projected income for the coming year, which may result in a bigger aid package.
Not a negotiation
While counselors aren’t likely to make changes simply because you are a nice person, they will often do as much as they can to help students who take the time and effort to ask.
“This is not like a car dealership where bargaining skill will get you a cheaper education,” Kantrowitz says. “It is a case where they will work with you to account for your specific situation.”
Surprisingly, few students ever bother to make a professional judgment appeal. Janet Gilmore, a spokeswoman for the University of California, Berkeley, said perhaps less than 10 percent of the student body annually apply for a review.
On a national scale, those numbers are even more striking. According to the Department of Education, approximately 5 percent of Pell Grant recipients and about 1 percent of undergraduate students receive professional judgment adjustments each year.
What counts as unusual?
Unusual circumstances aren’t limited to layoffs. The Higher Education Act details eight examples of what might count as an unusual situation:
- Tuition expenses at an elementary or secondary school
- Medical or dental expenses not covered by insurance
- Unusually high child-care costs
- Recent unemployment of a family member
- The number of parents enrolled at least half-time in a degree, certificate or other program leading to a recognized educational credential
- Proceeds of a sale of farm or business assets of a family if such sale results from a foreclosure, forfeiture, bankruptcy or an involuntary liquidation
- Costs to educate a student with a disability
- Other changes in a family’s income, a family’s assets or a student’s status.
The law goes to great lengths to say that nothing should limit a financial aid administrator when it comes to making a professional judgment. The law even goes so far as to say that while the examples listed may be cause to adjust a student’s financial situation, each case must be considered individually and the final decision lies with the counselor.
This means that different schools often have different interpretations of what is a necessary expense. For example, a church-affiliated school may look more favorably on tuition expenses for parochial school than a state school would.
And even beyond the issues spelled out, counselors are often willing to make concessions to help offset some more common hardships, such as a reduction in hours at work, a recent divorce, one-time windfalls, losses due to a natural disaster, and even, in some cases, an unusually long commute.
A true hardship
When asking for a professional review, make sure that your unusual circumstance can’t be construed as luxury spending.
The financial aid formula is designed to set aside a bare-bones minimum cost of living and a basic level of assets a family needs to survive. Those basic costs include the minimum food, housing, transportation expenses, and basic clothing and personal care, medical, and general family consumption needed to survive.
After those are accounted for, the formula generally assigns the rest of a family’s income and assets as being available to help pay for school.
The best appeals often show higher-than-average costs the family must pay, rather than costs they choose to pay.
The Application and Verification Guide, the official financial aid counselors’ handbook published by the Department of Education, cautions counselors to only adjust for situations that are true necessities. The guide offers several examples of situations that specifically should not count as special circumstances and that are contrary to the spirit of the law:
- Vacation expenses
- Tithing expenses
- Standard living expenses (e.g., utilities, credit card expenses, children’s allowances and the like).
“You say you need a car to get to school,” Kantrowitz says, “and while that may be true, they are going to say, ‘Yes, but you don’t need a Porsche or Hummer.'”
Another bad idea is to appeal purely to the counselor’s emotions and explain how hard a certain situation is rather than simply relying on facts and statistics. This is because the counselor often makes less money than the families applying for the appeal and what might seem like hardship to the family may actually come across looking crass.
“The counselor is not likely to feel bad for someone saying how hard it is to live on $40,000 a year when they themselves are only making $18,000 and trying to put their own kid through school,” Kantrowitz says.
Doesn’t hurt to ask
That is not to say that only extreme situations will be considered as unusual circumstances. Windfalls that pump up your income one year but aren’t likely to repeat in the following year might be eligible for a professional judgment adjustment.
“A very common case would be when a family had some sort of one-time event, like if Aunt Edna died and left $10,000 to the family,” Kantrowitz said. “Obviously this would artificially inflate the income for that year. In this case, an administrator can disregard it as income and just have it listed as an asset.”
This type of adjustment could be very beneficial because most families don’t have enough assets outside of their protected ones — retirement accounts and their primary residence — to trigger an asset contribution, Kantrowitz says.
Most dire circumstances
In some cases, asking a family to contribute to a student’s education would be out of the question, such as if the parents were abusive or deceased. This is when a counselor may choose to make what is called a dependency override. When students are determined to be independent, their assets are the only ones used to calculate need. This plays into the student’s favor because typically their income will be lower than their parents’ income.
The law specifies an override is warranted if the student:
- is 24 years of age or older by Dec. 31 of the award year
- is an orphan or ward of the court or was a ward of the court until age 18
- is a veteran of the U.S. armed forces
- is a graduate or professional student
- is married
- has legal dependents other than a spouse.
Still some other situations may warrant that a student be named as independent. For example, if a student is a refugee from another country, schools such as Berkley often choose to grant them independent status. According to Gilmore, other situations can include coming from extreme adverse family life situations where the student’s well-being is in jeopardy, or if a student’s parents are incapacitated through illness or incarceration.
Gilmore estimated that about 10 percent of Berkeley’s independent students — a very small number translating to about 30 students per year — receive dependency overrides each year.
Other schools often grant students dependency overrides if their parents abandoned them for more than one year. The catch is that living an independent life is not, in and of itself, enough to qualify a student for a dependency override. To qualify, a student must be truly abandoned, with no contact, support or other connection to their parents for at least one year.
“The question often comes up that if a student is 19, was kicked out of the house, and has been living independently and covering all (her) own costs, is not claimed by parents, but still has contacts with her parents, would she qualify?” Kantrowitz says. “Unfortunately, according to the law, that wouldn’t, on its own, meet the criteria because there is still contact.”
The law also says students cannot be made independent simply because their parents don’t claim them on their tax returns, refuse to help pay for school, or refuse to fill out the necessary paperwork.
Beware of cheating
While it may seem tempting to play the system and try to manipulate a counselor into making a judgment in the student’s favor, it is not only illegal, it is risky.
“People play the game all the time, but schools are incredibly good at recognizing when someone is trying to fool them,” Kantrowitz says.
Say, for example, someone is self-employed and claims they had a bad year as a way of getting a bigger aid package. A suspicious counselor may instead decide to average the past few years’ income and use that as a baseline, rather than taking the family’s word and basing the aid on one year’s low income.
Other families have feigned divorce to split the assets and income in the name of a better aid package. If a school finds out, it is able to adjust upward just as much as it is able to adjust downward. Getting caught may also label a student or a family as a cheat, adversely affecting the student for years.
For example, families may find themselves in a circumstance where there is no third-party documentation to support their case. If that happens, a lot will depend on how much the counselor trusts the student. If they have tried tricking the system in the past, the school may be less likely to believe them.
Anther bad idea is trying to go over the administrator’s head and appeal the decision through personal connections.
“What really ticks off the financial aid administrator is when the family contacts the president of the university to appeal,” Kantrowitz says. “What’s worse is that it won’t change the result, even if family has pull. By law, neither the president nor the secretary of education can override a counselor’s decision.”
Because there is no avenue for appeal, you really want to maintain a good relationship with the financial aid office. Getting off on the wrong foot can really harm your chances down the road.
Michael Giusti is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.