How to Handle Surprises on the Financial Aid Award

Written by: Melissa Brock
Updated: 3/10/21

Has this happened to you? Your child’s financial aid shows up in a fat packet via snail mail, comes to you via email or pops up in your child’s portal. Your child opens it with anticipation, you take a glance… and your heart sinks all the way to your feet.

Ugh… Your child’s financial aid award can feel like such a dead weight. Luckily, you can do something about it. Let us help you learn how to take action.

Types of Surprises You Might Find 

If you haven’t yet gotten your child’s financial aid award, don’t suddenly get nervous or even assume that you’ll receive a giant shock when you receive it. It may be just exactly in line with what you expected. 

However, if you find it less than satisfying, several reasons might cause that sinking feeling. 

Surprise 1: You didn’t expect your out-of-pocket cost to have quite so many zeroes. 

Maybe the grants didn’t amount to as much as you anticipated. Maybe you didn’t take a hard look at the college’s published price ahead of time. Maybe you found yourself with less cash than you had at the beginning of 2020 and the real cost took your breath away. At any rate, the realization just dawned: College will cost that amount, times four (or however many years your child will go to college). Yikes!

Surprise 2: Extra fees creeped in. 

Fees: They might not come to mind immediately when you shop for colleges. However, fees offer colleges and universities a sort of backdoor way to float their bottom line costs and at the same time, allow them to say they’re managing their tuition increases well. You might face orientation fees, activity fees, health center fees, technology fees, lab fees, online course fees, organization fees, athletic fees and more. 

Surprise 3: You’re shocked to learn just how much your child will need to take out in student loans.

The amount your child news to borrow could take your breath away. Especially when you start totaling up the total cost — with interest. Also, you know you’re going to owe money due to the interest rate, but did you know you’ll also pay for something called origination fees? 

You pay origination fees as a percentage of the total loan amount. In other words, you will receive a smaller loan than the total amount that you actually borrowed but your child must still repay the entire amount that he or she borrowed.

Surprise 4: Your EFC ended up a lot higher than you expected. 

So, you might have already known your expected family contribution (EFC) before your child receives the financial aid award, but it still might knock you for a loop… again.

What’s the EFC, again, exactly? Your EFC forms the amount the government expects you to contribute toward college. As it goes, the higher your EFC, the more the federal government estimates you can pay for your child’s college education

The more money you earn, the more likely the college will offer your high schooler less money. That’s why your son or daughter’s best friend might owe far less — his or her parents may make less than you.

Surprise 5: Other things might not align with your expectations.

About a zillion other factors may cause you to feel less than thrilled with your financial aid award. Maybe the admissions office originally told your child, “You’ll get a $10,000 scholarship,” only to find out your child received far less money. 

You may even find out that the school plans to handle half of its classes online in the fall — not what you and your family were expecting at all.

Other things may confuse you, mystify you and maybe even make you a little mad.

How to Handle These “Surprises”

You might feel inclined to sit and stew about these findings, complain to family and friends or even say nothing at all. Maybe you internalize the shock of receiving your child’s financial aid award. However, remember that schools want to work with you. They want to hear your concerns and try to help you the best they can. Learn more about what you can do next to address your concerns. 

Step 1: Contact financial aid offices at your child’s No. 1 school, or all the schools on the list, for that matter. 

Ask about the appeals process at each school. An appeal means you contact a financial aid administrator to request more money than the original amount the school offered. The financial aid office must approve the appeal. 

Most schools ask that you submit a letter and documents to prove that you qualify for special circumstances. Jot down some notes so you know how the appeals process works or ask for an email or other formal documentation that outlines this process.

Step 2: Put together a list of questions. 

Think very carefully about the questions you want to ask before you submit the appeal. Here are a few that might get you thinking: 

  • How will costs increase next year?
  • What can we do to increase scholarships? 
  • Is there a way to get more work-study?
  • What will happen if we face more financial difficulties? 
  • What do we need to include on our special circumstances form? 

You may want to contact a financial aid officer over the phone, Zoom them or meet in person to ask your questions, especially if you have quite a few!

Step 3: Identify your special circumstances and write an appeal letter.

Most schools invite you to write an appeal letter, also called a financial aid appeal letter, a professional judgment letter or a special circumstances appeal. 

Keep this letter extremely professional. You should identify a specific circumstance that prevents you from paying the full amount of money reflected in the financial aid award. A few special circumstances that warrant mention in an appeal letter: 

  • Job loss
  • Job furlough
  • Family illness
  • Special needs child who requires medical attention
  • Loss of home
  • Divorce or separation
  • Medical or dental expenses
  • Natural disaster loss
  • Other financial challenges

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Keep your letter brief and get straight to the point.
  • Organize your special circumstances in order of most significant to least significant, if you have several to share.
  • Don’t ask for a specific amount of money. You might get less than you need.

Step 4: Gather additional support. 

For example, if you have unreimbursed medical expenses, include copies of the receipts or other proof. Include bank statements, letters from your doctor or dentist or people who know you well, though it’s best not to include letters from relatives or friends. 

Step 5: Find out if you need to fill out forms from the financial aid offices. 

Colleges may require you to fill out additional forms in addition to your financial aid appeal letter. Make sure you know exactly which forms you need to fill out and how they prefer all the information to come back to each college. Each college may require something different!

Step 6: Follow up. 

Don’t forget to follow up if you haven’t heard back from financial aid offices about your appeal letters. 

Admission Offices Want to Work with You

Don’t think you’re at the end of the road when you get your child’s financial aid award. You can still do something about it, particularly if you have a situation that warrants a revision! 

The financial aid office wants to help you, and remember that they do their absolute best to get as many students in the door as they possibly can. Financial aid offices will work with you the best they can within the constraints of what they can offer.