Appealing Financial Aid and Merit Scholarships

on March 15, 2017

Do you know how to appeal a financial aid award or appeal a merit scholarship?


Knowing how to appeal merit scholarships and need-based financial aid awards from colleges could ultimately save you thousands of dollars.


Here are 10 things that you need to know about appealing financial aid awards and merit scholarships.


1. You don’t always need a compelling reason to appeal


Conventional wisdom says that you must have an excellent reason to successfully appeal a disappointing financial aid award such as a job loss, a death, a divorce, large medical bills or other special circumstances. That’s not always true.


Whether a college will provide more need-based aid or sweeten a merit scholarship depends on how much the institution wants you. Another potential factor is how a university’s freshmen deposits are faring. If the number of high school seniors enrolling for the fall isn’t meeting expectations, a college could be more likely to improve your offer.


A former president of a Midwestern university once told me that his institution would give an accepted student an extra $2,000 or $3,000 for each year for all sorts of dubious reasons if enrollment numbers were lagging. He recalled, for instance, that the university awarded a student a total of $8,000 more aid after she said that her aunt was an alumna.

Still, you are more likely to be successful in appealing for more financial aid (as opposed to merit aid) if your family has been affected by special circumstances. 


2. The appeal can continue after the official deadline for deposits


Colleges don’t like to talk about this but some of them do try to lure away students who have committed to other institutions during the late spring and summer months. This practice, by the way, is ethically sketchy. You might be able to extract a better price from a college forced to recruit applicants past the spring deposit deadline or use its offer to extract a better deal with the college that you plan to attend in the fall.


3. Appealing for merit aid will sometimes be a nonstarter


Consider this scenario:  Your family is too affluent to qualify for need-based aid so your aim was winning merit scholarships. Your favorite college accepted you, but you didn’t get a merit scholarship and now face the prospects of paying full price.


Some colleges and universities maintain a firm policy of not entertaining appeals for merit awards, but many will consider these appeals.


There also are a select group of elite schools, such as the Ivy League members, MIT, Stanford, Caltech, Amherst, Middlebury and Swarthmore that give no merit scholarships. Obviously appealing to institutions like these for merit scholarships would be a waste of time.


4. Ask about how your home equity impacted your aid


The vast majority of colleges and universities do not consider the equity in your primary home at all. Institutions that use the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, however, require that you share the value of your home equity and that can hurt your chances for need-based financial aid.


You can appeal a college’s use of your home equity and, at the very least, ask the institution to limit the damage it would cause to an award.


5. Know your EFC


You can’t possibly determine if an award is a good one unless you know your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC, which is expressed as a dollar amount, represents what you would be expected to pay at a minimum for one year of college. The higher your assets and income, the higher your EFC and the lower your chances for need-based aid.


Example: Your financial need, after subtracting your EFC, is $30,000 and the school is only offering $10,000 in financial aid. That’s a poor award.


Your EFC should be on your award letter and if it isn’t, ask the institution for this figure.


6. Research a college’s aid practices


Some universities provide excellent financial aid and many do not. Some dispense lots of merit scholarships and others do not. It makes sense to compare your child’s award with what the previous crop of freshmen received to see if the award is in the ballpark based on previous ones.


You can check out the average merit awards and financial aid awards for an individual university on the College Board’s website. While on the site, also check your child’s test scores and grade point average and compare them to the most previous freshmen class. You can also use Cappex to see how well you compare. Students with higher academic profiles typically earn higher awards.


7. Don’t use the word negotiate


Admission staff and financial aid administrators would prefer that families accept their first offers, but that’s not the real world. Don’t antagonize the very people who are in the position of giving you more money by acting as a hard-nosed negotiator and don’t use the word negotiate.


8. Back up your appeal with details


It’s a nonstarter to complain to admission officers that their colleges are too expensive. They already know this. Instead be as detailed as possible when asking for more financial assistance. If you’ve struggled with high medical bills, for example, provide copies of the bills. If a parent was laid off, show proof. Independent, third-party documentation is best.


9. Share competing offers


You will often be in a better position to squeeze more money out of a college if you can prove that you possess better offers. Be sure to tell your contact person of the superior awards and offer to scan them and send them over in an email.


I had a friend do just that when her daughter’s No. 1 choice – California Lutheran University – made an offer that was a few thousand dollars a year lower than the other universities that included Linfield College, Dominican University and University of the Pacific. She shared the other awards with Cal Lutheran and the university matched the highest offer.


10. Be proactive


If the financial aid application doesn’t adequately convey your financial situation, speak up before you receive an award letter. For instance, you might have had large medical bills or a once-in-a-lifetime bonus or you might have lost your job since you filed for aid. Ideally you will approach colleges and explain your situation before they have reviewed your aid application.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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