A Guide to Negotiating Your Financial Aid Award

Written by: Kristyn Pilgrim
Updated: 6/23/20

Applying to college can be a nerve-wracking time – but what happens if you get into your dream school only to find that you received much less financial aid than expected? During the 2018-2019 academic year, over 80% of students and their families used some type of financial aid (grants, scholarships, and loans) to pay for tuition and college expenses.

So, what happens when you don’t receive as much as you need to afford your dream school or even the most affordable college on your list? We’ll walk you through some tips on how to negotiate your financial aid to ensure you take advantage of all of the financial aid options available.

Here’s how to negotiate your financial aid step by step.

Step 1: Get Organized

It can be difficult to appeal your financial aid award if you can’t easily demonstrate need and compare award amounts across schools. Before you begin your negotiations, you’ll need to organize your financial aid packages across all schools so that you have a better idea of all of your funding options.

Begin by creating a spreadsheet. List your schools in the first column and label your rows by “total tuition costs” and “financial aid awards.” You should break down your awards into scholarships, grants, work-study opportunities, and student loans to assess your options. Just make sure you total the award in the last column. 

Here’s a quick sample of how you can organize your list:

College ListTuition CostScholarshipsGrantsLoansTotal Financial Aid
School A$70,000$10,000$5,000$20,000$35,000
School B$36,000$12,000$8,000$16,000$36,000
School C$52,000$8,000$12,000$20,000$40,000

You can also create a column subtracting the amount you’ll owe outside of financial aid. For School A, that would leave you with a balance of $35,000 per year, School B would be $0, and School C would be $12,000. 

Next, you’ll want to look at which of these financial aid awards are renewable from year to year. For instance, while School B appears to have covered all of your financial aid needs, if the $12,000 scholarship is only available for your freshman year, you could be left with a $12,000 bill the following year.

Be sure to note renewable and nonrenewable funds so that you can get a better idea of which schools are offering you the most money over the lifetime of your education.

Step 2: Talk to the Financial Aid Offices

Now that you have a better idea of how much financial aid you can receive across schools, reach out to each college’s financial aid office to talk to an adviser. Find out if there are additional financial aid options you can apply for. They might have additional scholarships you’re eligible for that can help make up for what isn’t covered by your financial aid award.

If there are quick funding options left, talk to them about the process for appealing your financial aid award letter. Some schools have specific forms you’ll need to fill out to begin the appeal process.

Step 3: Write Your Appeal Letter

Next, you’ll write your appeal letter. If School A is your top choice, for instance, you can begin by letting them know the commitment you feel toward this school and stating that they’re your top choice. You can share that School B has funded 100% of your tuition and note any specific scholarships or grants they’ve offered that differ from School A’s offerings.

You should also note any changes that may have occurred since your FAFSA application. For instance, maybe a parent has lost a job, taken a demotion, or gone through a life event that has impacted their finances. 

You should also find out if there are any employment opportunities within the school that you may not have previously considered. If you did not ask to be considered for work-study programs, it might be too late to enroll. However, many schools have nonwork-study jobs you can apply for that can help with your finances.

Tips for Writing a Professional Appeal Letter

  • Be Respectful. Even if you feel your financial award is unfair and doesn’t account for the full amount needed to fund your education, it’s important to understand that each school is working with its own set of funding that must be spread across all students. Be polite and courteous when writing your letter – getting emotional or claiming that you’re owed more money won’t read well.
  • Only Ask for What You Need. If your parents have college savings set aside for you to use, determine what you need to afford to go to each school. If you only need $10,000 per year, let the school know that amount. It will be much easier for the school to find you an additional funding source for close to that amount and employment opportunities. However, if you ask for the full $35,000 from School A, it will be much more difficult for the school to accommodate. Even if they have $10,000 to offer, they might reserve it for another student asking for that amount (or less) in financial aid.
  • Be Realistic. While it would be incredible to have 100% of your education funded in scholarships and grants, it’s not a reality for most students. While minimizing your debt is important, if your top school choice is a worthwhile investment in the long run, consider that when writing your letter. Acknowledge that you understand the school may not be able to fund all of your needs, but let them know that any additional support will make it easier for you to attend.

If you do not hear back within two weeks of appealing, be sure to follow up. Every school has its own process for handling appeals, so reach out to your financial aid adviser to find out the status of your appeal and when to expect a decision. Be friendly when checking in – there are likely several appeals the school is reviewing at once, and you want to show you’re eager to accept your award package without putting too much pressure on the school.

Step 4: Review Your Options

Once your appeal has been reviewed, you’ll receive a final decision from each school. Be sure to review all of your new options (if any) by composing an updated spreadsheet. Take a look at how much funding each school is offering you by type. For instance, if minimizing student loan debt is important to you, you might opt for the school offering you more aid in scholarships, grants, and employment opportunities.

While your top school choices should factor into your decision, you’ll want to first look at the numbers as objectively as possible. If you’ll need to take out private student loans to fund the remaining $35,000 in aid for School A, on top of the $20,000 in federal loans you’re eligible for, decide if $55,000 in school loans per year is a debt you’re willing to take on. Depending on your major, this might make sense, as you might be able to apply for loan forgiveness programs later on.

Review your options carefully before making any decisions.

Use CollegeFinance.com to Look for Additional Scholarships

While you appeal your financial aid decision, be sure to review any additional scholarships you may have overlooked to see if you can find any additional money. CollegeFinance.com has a variety of scholarship resources that you can use to see what options are available.
Do you still have questions on financial aid? Check out our 2020 Ultimate Guide to Financial Aid to better understand how to maximize your financial aid awards.