Appealing Financial Aid and Merit Awards

What happens when the financial aid or merit aid package that a student receives from a school is inadequate? Is it possible to extract more money from a college?

This is a common question that parents ask who are disappointed by awards their children have received.

One parent, for instance, told me that she was discouraged when her daughter received a $9,000 award from Whitman College in Walla, Walla, WA. It was a puny award compared to what some other schools offered including Willamette whitman-college-1University, a liberal arts college in Salem, OR, which gave the teenager a $20,000-a-year scholarship.

I was not surprised that the smart teenager received less money from Whitman.

As I’ve emphasized in this course, schools higher on U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings, don’t have to offer large merit scholarships because affluent students, who tend to be the ones who pay attention to the rankings, are more likely to attend a highly ranked school without a merit scholarship.

College Rankings and Scholarships

In the 2017 college rankings, Whitman was ranked as the 41th best liberal arts college. In contrast, Willamette U., is ranked as the 72nd best liberal arts college.

No one should assume that a higher ranking means a school is superior to those lower in the pecking order!!! For doubters, please read this fantastic New Yorker article on college rankings that Malcolm Gladwell wrote that slays this notion.

Appealing an Award

Students who are unhappy with their awards will sometimes be able to obtain a larger one. There are many factors at play including a school’s institutional practices.

For instance, it would be a complete waste of time to ask Williams or Amherst colleges for a merit scholarship for an admitted child since those schools don’t offer any. They are No. 1 and No. 2 liberal arts colleges, according to U.S. News, so they don’t have to bother with merit scholarships. Wealthy students pay full price at these schools and everyone else receives what is often excellent need-based aid. This is the same practice observed by top institutions in the national university category including all the Ivies.

Checking the Statistics

When looking up the merit aid practices of a school, I check its statistics on the website of the College Board or COLLEGEdata.

When I looked up Whitman’s stats on the College Board, I discovered that the typical merit award (referred to as non-need-based aid) was $9,751. This amount is only slightly more than what the teenager received. curled dollarsWillamette’s average merit award is $19,925, which is slightly less than what the teenager received.

Checking Other Offers

Colleges don’t like to negotiate once they’ve completed a family’s financial aid package, but many colleges will do it. School policies vary considerably on negotiating financial aid awards. Some schools are very upfront, such as Carnegie Mellon, which posted this statement on its Web site: “We are open to negotiating financial awards to compete with other institutions.”

Some schools will only reconsider an award if it’s a need-based request. Many other schools, however, will review merit awards.

Typically schools will want to see award letters (need-based or merit-based) from schools that have given a student a better deal. A family will be in a weaker position if a child hasn’t gotten higher awards from other schools.

Whether a student will have success appealing an award can also depend on whether a school’s admission office is nervous about meeting its freshman enrollment target. Some schools will eagerly give a student an additional award to ensure filling a freshman slot regardless of the merits of the appeal. In fact, in some cases, student’s don’t even need to ask.

Thomas Delahunt, vice president of admissions and student financial planning at Drake University, once told me that plenty of schools, which are behind in their freshmen deposits, will create additional scholarships in the spring to offer to accepted students to boost their acceptances. Schools can just slap random names on these pseudo awards.

Maureen McRae Goldberg, who is the former head of Occidental College’s financial aid office, said families appealing at this institution will have a chance of getting additional help if their appeal is based on costs beyond their control.  For instance, a family might have high medical bills or they might be sending money back to grandparents in a foreign country who are impoverished.

images-2What won’t work, Goldberg said, is asking for more money due to the household’s discretionary spending. Parents who complain about their mortgage on a multi-million-dollar house won’t get sympathy because it was their decision to buy an expensive residence.

Goldberg recalled an appeal that the school initially decided to grant when the parents explained that they had racked up $30,000 in medical bills. When the school obtained copies of the bills, however, the extra aid was denied.

Why? Because the medical bills were generated for the family pet!

More Tips for Appealing Awards

Engage the right person. When appealing a financial aid award, make sure to find out who is the correct person to approach at the school.

Provide a number. Try to be as specific as possible about what further student financial aid you need. Don’t just complain that the school costs too much. That’s what stressed financial aid officers hear all day long. If you need another $4,000 a year to make the commitment doable, say so.

Be diplomatic. Negotiating is okay, but be nice about it. You’d be surprised how often aid officers are mistreated – honey goes a long way.

Make a better case. Share any change in your financial circumstances. Speak up. Especially, if there has been a layoff, high medical bills or you’re now caring for an ailing parent.

Try any argument. If a school believes a little more money will seal a teenager’s commitment it may fatten the offer for even a sketchy reason. One college president told me that even a dubious reason, such as that an applicant’s aunt attended the institution, can work.




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  1. Hi Lynn,
    On my 2015 tax return line 16a shows an amount of my 401k that I rolled over from my employer to an IRA as I retired mid year. How can I be sure that schools will not consider this money as income or a disbursement (for the FAFSA and Profile)?

    1. Hi Noreen,

      This rollover should not count, but sometimes when the IRS Data Retrieval Tool is used it is treated as income. I would avoid using the IRS Data Retrieval tool when filing the FAFSA.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  2. I think the real solution is more direct support my governments for post-secondary education … these huge loans and ulcer-producing competitions for scholarships are getting out of hand!