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Students Ask, College Counselors Answer

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This week's question from Matthew H. from Richmond, VA asks:

I’m worried that my financial aid package won’t be sufficient for me and my family to cover my college costs. How can I negotiate with schools to increase my package, and what other sources of aid are available to students, even if they require some more work from me?

Absolutely! Contact the financial aid office at your college

Kathleen Little | Senior Advisor
Every college financial aid office is willing to consider new information when your circumstances change. Call the financial aid office and explain your situation. They may ask you to submit a letter explaining that your parents were laid off, or they may suggest making an appointment to talk to a financial aid counselor if you live close to campus. Try to be as specific as possible in your request for reconsideration: give the dates on which your parents lost their jobs; estimate your family’s new monthly income, including any unemployment benefits your parents receive. Include documentation from your parents’ employers.

An admissions officer's perspective

Mark Kopenski | Vice President & Dean of Enrollment
We typically do not know much about your families’ financial situation and the traditional way of understanding financial need through the federal financial aid process does not always tell the complete story. If you take the time and explain your situation to the school, a good financial assistance professional will be in position to help show you how to navigate the various opportunities available to asset you with paying for University. I get great satisfaction out of helping students find ways to pay for college and most of the time there is a way to make it work. Be brave and go see your financial assistance professional - it will be well worth the time! 

Can I still afford to go to college?

Emily Snyder | Owner & Managing Director
It is not at all unusual for a sudden and unexpected change in your financial situation to bring about concerns that are quite real; but don’t let your fears stop you from taking the steps necessary to understand your options.  Be proactive.  Communicate to each college the change in your family’s financial situation.  Provide details.  Keep “Is it possible for me to receive more money? “  “What documentation do I need to provide?”  “ Are there other resources you suggest I check out?”  

Colleges won’t know unless you tell them

Don Fraser, Jr. | Director of Education and Training
If your family has experienced even the slightest downturn in their financial situation, then the first thing that you should do is plan to call the financial aid office of any of the colleges from which you received financial aid packages.   I suggest scripting your conversation or preparing notes so that you are articulate when you call.  Next—make the call.  Identify yourself and ask to speak to your financial aid counselor.  Explain your situation, let them know that you would like their school to be an option, and ask to be considered for additional aid.  They’ll take it from there.   

Communicate immediately and directly; understand institutions may respond differently

Nancy Meislahn | Dean of Admission & Financial Aid
I’m a cards-on-the-table kind of girl.  As circumstances change, you should be in contact with each financial aid office to learn what may impact your application given institutional policies.  For some schools deadlines may be critical.  There may be differences between schools with merit vs need-based aid.  Ask what documentation you need for an updated review of your aid package.  The timing of your parents’ unemployment (and benefits) may be a factor—for example, you may be asked to wait a number of months until you can file an appeal depending on severance and potential re-employment.  Don’t be shy or embarrassed:  Financial aid counselors want to understand your situation and respond to the extent they can with the resources available!

Communicate with the aid offices to explain your special circumstances

Jacqueline Murphy | Director of Admissions
While you cannot be certain if you will receive additional aid, schools cannot respond to situations they do not know about. Because your family circumstances have changed dramatically your resources will be different. Most aid offices will ask you to put your request in writing and provide as much specific information as possible. Do not wait to contact the aid offices “hoping” things will work out. Hope is not a plan and most institutional aid budgets are limited. The sooner you make schools aware of your situation the more likely it is that you will receive some assistance.

Contact each school’s financial aid office immediately

Kathryn Favaro | Independent College Admissions Counselor
If you have completed your financial aid applications and your family’s situation changes, it is important that you inform each school’s financial aid office. Colleges want to know your current financial circumstances but it is up to the applicant to keep them informed of any changes. Call each office to ask how they would like you to communicate the information. Typically they will request a detailed letter and documentation of the change.

Contact the college financial aid officer if family income changes

Bob Grant | Director of Guidance & Counseling
Unfortunately, in our current economy this is an all too frequent event. You and your parent’s can update your financial information on the FAFSA. Perhaps the best approach is to call the financial aid officer at the colleges to which you have applied. Explain what has happened and how your family income has changed. Ask the financial aid counselor for help in re-calculating your expected family contribution. You and or your parents should be prepared to submit documentation if it is requested. Don’t be bashful…..they are ready and eager to help you.

Current college students can have the same problem

Eric Furda | Dean of Admissions
Any change in a family’s financial circumstances should be communicated in writing to an institution’s financial aid office---even currently enrolled students. Although the change may not immediately impact your financial need, getting the change of circumstances on the financial aid office’s radar can help them with counseling you on alternative payment or financing options, while also alerting them to the need for a re-evaluation of your family’s financial need. Financial aid officers will understand that unforeseen circumstances arise and will do their best, within institutional resources, to be responsive to your change of circumstances.  Their response may take the form of additional grant/scholarship, work-study or job on campus, loans or other financing options.

Dealing with changes in financial aid situation after forms are filed

Susan Marrs | Director of College Counseling
If your parents' financial situation gets significantly worse after you've submitted your financial aid applications, you should DEFINITELY file a FAFSA Special Circumstances Form.  The Indiana University website has a tremendously helpful explanation of what can be appealed, who files the appeal and how, etc., and you don't have to be an IU student to use that information:  You should also call the financial aid offices of the colleges you've applied to, tell them you're filing the Special Circumstances Form, and ask them if there's anything else you should do.  And call them all, not just one or two.

Documentation is key in a good negotiation, have yours ready

Pam Proctor | Author
Policies differ from school to school. At some colleges, students can request a Professional Judgment Appeal form, which the financial aid office will use to update your file. Expect to provide documentation, such as proof of unemployment, to prove your case. At other schools, a personal appeal by phone to a financial aid officer could start the review process. Still other colleges won’t make any changes immediately: your first-semester financial aid will be based strictly on 2010 tax-year information. In any case, e-mail or FAX a letter detailing your financial situation and call the financial aid office.

Don't be shy about college aid!

Marie Bullock | Independent Counselor
First of all, never be hesitant to ask about financial aid.  Please realize that if a school has accepted you, they want you to be a part of their community and student body.  You have a need to know information and it is part of your maturing into adulthood that seeks answers to this question.  Speak openly with your financial aid officer at the institution to which you want to inquire.  If there has been a change in your family's financial position then it can be evaluated.  Also, make sure you speak with your high school counselor about this and inquire about scholarships that are being offered in your district or region.  Apply for as many as you can.  Often these scholarships are renewable.  This means that a $1,000.00 award could actually be $4,000. over your 4 year college career!

Don’t despair!  You’re not alone

Ruth Vedvik | Principal
Contact the financial aid offices at the colleges where you’ve been admitted and tell your story.   You will need to document (provide proof of) your parents’ changed circumstances and perhaps write a statement or complete a form.  With this information, the colleges will reassess and revise your financial aid award. You should receive more need-based financial aid.   Other options:  strong students might apply to private liberal arts colleges with strong merit scholarship programs and need based aid.  Or consider a low cost local school to keep your borrowing down. 

Don’t panic! Financial aid officers are your friends!

Lora Lewis | Founder & Educational Consultant
Many families are facing financial uncertainty these days, but help and resources are available. Financial aid officers want to help you afford college. Contact the financial aid offices at your prospective colleges to find out which types of aid best meet your changing financial needs. Options may include grants, loans, scholarships and work-study. Before you call, have copies of your FAFSA and be ready to provide accurate information about your family’s current financial situation. If you need support in this process, visit your high school counselor or contact a private counselor or community-based college readiness program for guidance.

Financial aid counselors can assist if your family income changes

Suzanne Petrusch | Vice President for Enrollment Management
Do not despair.  Many financial aid offices will work with you to consider your family’s change in circumstances.  I encourage you to make calls to the financial aid offices at the schools you are considering.  Explain your situation and ask the counselors to detail the process for submitting revisions to their institutions.  Using the new information you provide, the school may calculate a revised Expected Family Contribution (EFC).  Your total financial aid package may then be adjusted based on the new EFC.

Financial aid officers can use "professional judgment" to recalculate your EFC

Shelly Levine | Certified Educational Planner
Your question is a great one. It points to the importance of filling out the financial aid applications. The Expected Family Contribution is determined through a need-analysis formula, taking into consideration income and assets of you and your parents. Your “need” is the difference between the college cost and your EFC.  Most colleges require the FAFSA, some require the CSS Profile, and still others use an institutional form. You should immediately contact the financial aid officers, first by letter and then by phone and explain the situation.  FAOs will try to work with you to adjust your financial aid package.

Financial Aid Officers want to help you. Talk to them

Ralph Figueroa | Director of College Guidance
Changes in financial circumstances can happen to anyone. Don’t panic. Contact financial aid offices immediately and ask to speak to the officer evaluating your file. Financial aid officers  are good people who really want to help you any way they can. Be direct and honest, and be prepared to provide documentation such as layoff notices. Financial  aid is given out according to set  rules, with some discretion. So  be prepared to choose a different college or make alternate plans if the finances will not work out for you this year. Maybe even consider taking a gap year and applying again.

If your financial circumstances unexpectedly change, notify the college ASAP

Jane Klemmer | Founder
If changes to your family’s financial circumstances have put your college dreams in jeopardy, tell the college financial aid office ASAP, verbally and in writing! Before picking up the phone, have a plan and do your homework.  Have facts on how this impacts your family's resources available for college, given other financial obligations. This will help the financial aid administrator understand your true financial picture. Delaying this conversation until an admissions decision is rendered on your application may actually reduce your chances of receiving the aid you need, so act now before financial aid awards are decided.

In seeking financial aid, changed circumstances can always be addressed

Bill Pruden | Head of Upper School, College Counselor
The cost of college is a never ending concern for most prospective students.  However, because colleges are no less fearful of being under enrolled they will work with students to help them meet the costs.  It is not inappropriate to contact a school and inquire about additional aid based on what another school has offered.  Bidding wars are not unusual.  Indeed a ruling by the Justice Department a number of years ago was seemingly designed to encourage that.   Too, an additional round of the SATs in hopes of meeting the qualifying score for merit scholarship is not unheard of either.  Like so much of this process, communicating directly with the school and seeing what they can do is critically important. 

Increased Grant Awards: Ask and You May (Possibly) Receive

Joan Casey | President
Sit down with your parents and determine how much more in grant money (not loans) you will need in order to realistically consider your college of choice. Then contact the financial aid office and ask if they would be willing to increase their award by that dollar amount. If a work-study grant was not initially part of your package, you should ask them to include it. For scholarships, start with your guidance counselor to find out if there are any school or community grants available and then visit sites such as to identify additional sources of funding.

Make a friend in financial aid; they want to help

Amy Swords | Director of College Advising
It is always good to speak with a financial aid counselor at the college or university where you attend or are applying. In most cases, they will ask your parents to submit specific documentation to support the changes since application. This is also a good time to ask your college counselor about scholarships or grants for which you may be eligible. Don’t be discouraged or afraid to ask; financial aid counselors want to help and will do whatever they can for you.

Need more aid? Don't just ask for more money!

Ric Stackpole | Assistant Dean of Student Affairs & Support Services
During the admission process, college officials offered to assist you make an informed decision about selecting a college that best fit your academic and social needs. A discussion regarding investing in ones future and affordability wasn’t far behind. Answering this question is simple. Be direct. Explain that the financial situation at the time of submitting documentation has changed. Request additional consideration. DO NOT simply ask for more money. Everyone wants more money. Provide financial documentation showing change in income due to unemployment. With this information, modifying the financial aid package may be possible.

Negotiate with facts and honesty

Maureen Lawler | College Counselor
Colleges are willing to discuss financial aid packages with families. Just saying "This isn't enough" is not going to get you anywhere. Bring facts, copies of income tax forms, proof of large medical expenses, forms that show losses, etc. to the discussion and be honest. If you have new grades, new test scores, or won an award bring those to the schools attention. There are still plenty of outside (non-college sponsored) scholarships available in late spring so keep looking and applying.

Not to Worry: Financial Aid Officers Are People Too

Julia Surtshin | Founder
Colleges award need-based aid on the assumption that your family’s current financial circumstances are accurately portrayed by your financial aid application. If your situation changes after filing, financial aid officers really do want to know. Immediately write a letter of explanation to each college. Detail when each parent was laid off, state how much unemployment insurance they receive, and estimate how long each expects to be unemployed. Offer to provide additional information if requested. This likely will be taken into account when awards are made. Remember too, that merit aid, which isn't affected by need, is usually most generous where you are a highly desirable applicant.

Personal situations do change, you need to advocate for yourself

Edward Devine | Mainland Director of Admissions
The FAFSA is a snapshot of your family's financial situation from the year prior to your enrollment in college.  Loss of income, loss of job, changes in family situations may occur after you have filed the FAFSA.  The family contribution estimated from the FAFSA data is a snapshot and starting point for colleges to award aid.  You can however, take the opportunity to make the process personal by informing the financial aid officers of these special circumstances.  This is not an appeal, but rather an update, usually sent by letter, to make the school aware of change in your families ability to pay for college. 

Plead Your Case to the Financial Aid Office

Janet Rosier | Independent College Admissions Consultant
Your family has new information--extenuating circumstances that need to be explained to the Financial Aid offices of the colleges. Be proactive and contact them now, so that they can include this new information in their formula or exercise professional judgment. Your parents should write a letter explaining that they were recently laid off and be specific as to how this will affect their ability to pay for college. Ask the colleges what other information and documents they may want in order to verify your current financial situation. Be sure to follow up to ascertain they have everything they need.

Professional Judgment allows financial officers to hear your case

Michael Minutello | College Advisor & Test Prep Tutor
In this situation the best thing a family can do is to contact the financial offices at all the schools the student has applied and explain the situation in writing.  Financial aid officers are able to utilize Professional Judgment (PJ) when evaluating individual financial aid applications.  What this means is that they are able to take into account any special circumstances that might not have been reflected in the paperwork that has been submitted and perhaps award more institutional aid as they see fit.  There is no guarantee that more aid will be awarded, but it is certainly worth explaining the situation and hoping for the best.

Professional Judgment can allow schools to adjust aid eligibility

Kristen Tabun | Director of College Guidance
You should contact the financial aid offices directly at the colleges you're considering.  In the case of federal aid, schools can use what is known as "Professional Judgment" to adjust a student's aid eligibility when special circumstances arise such as a reduction in income.  Decisions will vary from college to college. This would also be the time to ask about payment plans the colleges can set up for you over the course of the semester or the whole year.

Schools will negotiate to the extent that they can

Roby Blust | Dean of Admissions & Enrollment Planning
Many schools offer their best financial aid package right up front.  These schools are not in a position to negotiate but most, if not all, are willing to review an award if the family has special circumstances (job loss, high medical/dental bill not covered by insurance or elementary/secondary tuition).  If someone wants to pursue special circumstances, they need to provide documentation of the situation – bills, layoff notices, unemployment, severance packages and signed federal tax returns.  These discussions should occur with each school the student is interested in directly.  Schools can also help you secure alternative forms of funding as well.  Start with the Financial Aid Office.

Start with need based scholarships when parents have been laid off

Esther Walling | College Counselor
Considering the student’s parent lost their jobs in the current year, he/she is going to have to contact the Colleges and Universities to which they have applied and as quickly as possible. Money gets disbursed rather quickly after their deadlines.  Be sure to access all free scholarship search engines including CAPPEX, Zinch, FastWeb, and College Board.  Contact local community organizations, Rotary, Kiwanis, Chamber of Commerce, Eliks, Lions, Moose, Masons, Odd Fellows & Rebeccas.  Yes it’s an odd sort of list, but they are all benevolent societies and into helping students succeed.  They may have some extra money available for such instances.

Stop using the word 'negotiate,' this isn't 'Let's Make a Deal!'

Tony Bankston | Dean of Admissions
The first key is to get the word "negotiate" out of your vocabulary. Most financial aid officers will rankle at the mere mention of the word. Need-based financial assistance isn't about "Let's Make a Deal;" it's about colleges trying to utilize limited resources as best as possible to put a college education in reach for a variety of families in different financial circumstances. Different colleges will cost different amounts. That is the reality of the marketplace. If you have extenuating circumstances that you believe are negatively impacting your ability to finance your education, you simply need to open up a dialogue with financial aid representatives at each of the colleges you are considering and make sure they have all the additional information they need to make a financial aid assessment. In the end, most colleges will attempt to do the best they can, but you need to remember that they are working with hundreds, in some cases thousands, of other families who are also very concerned about their cost to attend college. In the end, they need to be equitable in how they treat each family.

Take action and don’t despair over loss of parents’ employment

John Frahlich | Counseling Department Chair
Sorry to hear about your parents’ job loss. Contact college financial aid offices immediately and provide specific information such as a letter from your parents’ former employers documenting their unemployment. Aggressively search scholarships using sites such as Pursue local and institutional scholarships. Explore loan options by consulting with college financial aid experts. Get a job and save. Consider commuting to a community college for the first two years but keep all doors open until you review financial aid award letters. Once in college explore work study, loan forgiveness programs, tuition payment plans, and paid internships. Meet with your counselor!

The inside scoop on financial aid offices

Craig Meister | President
Increasingly top colleges are directing their aid dollars towards increasing access and affordability to their institutions, while less selective colleges use a good portion of their aid dollars towards recruiting students for reasons other than families’ lack of funds.  In these cases, telling your first-choice college about the aid other colleges offered you might yield a bit more merit-based aid. Yet, if there have been no major changes to a family’s financial situation since first applying for aid, don’t bet on getting more money from a college. Always check before applying for awards from third party organizations because these additional sources of funding often reduce the amount of money a college will ultimately award you.

Think outside the box for more funding!

Wendy Williams | Educational Consultant
Packages are typically made up of merit scholarships, grants and other loans or work-study programs. Each college has a formula for calculating financial packages. If you need additional help for paying for college, turn to private businesses or community organizations that might have scholarship opportunities. Also, think outside of the box. Does your college need a Resident Advisor? Is there a job that you can get on campus to help pay for tuition? Can you find a job that offers employer tuition assistance? You could always begin your college years at a local community college or at a small university where the name doesn't cost as much as a top tier institution.

View the financial aid office as your partner

Whitney Bruce | Independent College Counselor
Long term or temporary unemployment can be difficult for any family and more so for a family with a student applying to college.  If you find that the school financial aid forms do not adequately tell the story of your family's financial situation, don't hesitate to contact the financial aid offices at the colleges to which you have applied.  Begin your conversation early, and be prepared to provide specific information and documentation.  Finally, consider additional options, such as a local or community college, which might provide another way to ease your college costs.

Ways to make the actual cost of education affordable

Darryl Jones | Sr. Associate Director of Admissions, Coordinator for Multicultural Admission
Consider the following: 1) Ask if the financial aid office employs the practice of “gapping”, the practice of giving a family less than the amount necessary to afford college costs.  For example, if a student needs $25,000 to cover the gap between what he or she can afford and what the total cost of attendance is, a student may only receive $20,000 in a financial aid package.  If you receive a “yes” answer, then ask how the “gap” may be closed. 2) Have documents available that show any additional unexpected circumstances such as a recent medical bills, a job loss or lay-off, or any substantive event or circumstance that has had an impact on the family’s finances.

What to do when Financial Circumstances Change

Donnamarie Hehn | Director of College Guidance
First, breathe.  You may be feeling panicked, but college financial aid offices are prepared to deal with this situation.  Make sure that you file required financial aid forms as soon as possible.  Then, when you or your parents call to update your present situation, the financial aid staff may direct you to gather any or all of the following documents that will prove unemployment: letter from former employer, copy of last pay stub, unemployment benefits statement.  You may also need to file a special circumstances form so that your financial aid is recalculated.    

What To Know When Approaching Schools to Negotiate Financial Aid Packages

Joanna Schultz | Director of College Counseling
Some institutions will negotiate a financial aid package and some won't. You can ask your high school counselor, who may know the policies of a variety of schools, or you can just plow ahead. If a school does negotiate, it will negotiate with YOU because it wants to yield you. The higher up within the GPA and test score numbers of that school, the more likely it is to negotiate. That college will be more likely to negotiate for one of the following two circumstances: there has been a change in your family's financial situation or other colleges have offered you better packages. Bring thorough documentation in both situations. Negotiation doesn't always work, but if you have the characteristics described above, it may.

What’s the bottom line? Your parents want to know!

Bridget Herrera | College Counselor
Before starting a conversation with a financial aid officer, be certain you have a clear understanding of the costs that make up the budget for each school and how much of your financial aid award will actually go towards covering those costs. Most parents want to know what the bottom line is and how much they will have to pay each month. When you’ve done your research carefully and assessed how much more you will need, you will be ready to sit down and talk and see how your college of choice can help you close that gap.

Whatever You Do, Don't Call It Negotiating

Kiersten Murphy | Director
It is crucial that you contact each financial aid office individually and politely ask if they are willing to reconsider and what they require to help them understand your profile better. Do not negotiate, or even use that word, as this could potentially be offensive. Calmly bring to their attention any new information that could assist the staff in reevaluating your package, which could include a change in personal circumstances since filing the FAFSA. Be prepared to supply written documentation which supports your case and thank the counselor for their assistance. Above all else, be patient.

When circumstances change significantly, you can ask for more help

Diana Hanson | Independent College Consultant
A significant change in family circumstances is often the only reason that colleges will allow an appeal. First, go to “Financial Aid” on the college website, and see whether they have appeals information. If not, send a message to the financial aid office (preferably a specific person) outlining exactly what has happened. If you filed a CSS Profile, amend the “special circumstances” section, and re-send. Finally, even if an appeal does not yield a result, you may still have the option to take out additional student loans. The first year Stafford loan maximum is $3500, and while a college may limit the subsidized portion (government pays the interest while you’re in college), you always have the option to request the remaining amount in an unsubsidized loan (interest accrues while you’re in college).

When financial circumstances change, students can ask for a re-evaluation

Marilyn Emerson | Founder
“Negotiating” financial aid packages rarely works and may annoy the person who could be helpful. Aid is usually governed by set policies. If circumstances have changed, financial aid officers are usually willing to listen and may increase your award. Be sure to provide details and documentation. Even if your circumstances have not changed, you can still ask the financial aid officer for advice about other resources that may be available and work opportunities. This is what they do and they have the most up-to-date information. When weighing borrowing money versus working, remember that loans have to be paid back.

Yes!  You need to contact each school’s financial aid office

Myra Smith | Executive Director, Financial Aid Services
The amount of financial aid you will receive is determined in large part on prior year income.  When a parent is laid off you should inform the financial aid office immediately, providing as much detail as possible.  These cases are quite common and schools have discretion to make adjustments to the aid offered based on the severity of the change and their institutional resources.   Refer to each college’s web site to see if they have particular instructions on how to submit new information and be prepared to include documentation such as recent paystubs, layoff notices, unemployment compensation or severance pay expected.  

Yes, although universities might not cover your entire need

Rachel Smith-Vaughan | College Guidance Counselor
Universities offer aid in the form of work study, grants and loans, as well as merit aid scholarships that might require a separate application. Additional aid maybe found sophomore through senior years through specific department scholarships; becoming a Resident Advisor (your room and board will be covered); tutoring students in your area of expertise; a paid internship;  working for the admissions office during the summer giving information sessions and tours; as well as assisting with the freshman orientation in August and January. Never procrastinate! Check each individual university web site for scholarship and financial aid deadlines. Many universities begin to allocate aid as early as January.

Yes, make every effort to obtain additional financial aid!

Laurie Starks | Founder
After filing the FAFSA, you may still make changes based on new information, on the SAR (Student Aid Report). It is important to contact either the college financial aid office directly, or go to the corrections page on the FAFSA and amend the information immediately. The financial aid administrator may exercise some PJ (Professional Judgment) in awarding additional aid. Additional aid may be in the form of federal grants, direct loans, work-study, and state or institutional grants. The amount of flexibility each institution has regarding the distribution of additional funds varies, but it is worth a try.

Your relationship with your Financial Aid Office matters

Monica Inzer | Vice President & Dean of Admission & Financial Aid
Just as all colleges aren’t equal, all financial aid policies aren’t the same. Resources will vary, as will financial aid packages and how colleges respond to economic hardship cases. But don’t panic. In many cases, particularly at places that promise to meet 100% demonstrated need, colleges will be there for families like yours. Call the financial aid officers at the colleges where you applied; explain your situation. Usually, you’ll find them to be very sympathetic and willing to talk you through their policies and your options. And if that isn’t the case, well, that might make your college decision easier.


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