Your checklist for navigating the college planning process is almost complete. Your student applied to -and was accepted to- several schools of choice. Financial aid forms have been submitted accurately and on time. You received financial aid award letters from the schools and you compared them to one another.
A common concern at this point is that the FAFSA process and the family’s expected family contribution, or EFC, seems really disconnected from your current financial circumstances.
Do you know anybody that has ever been laid off? I do… me! What if your FAFSA income was based upon a full years pay, your expected family contribution was based upon that, and you no longer have a job? Or perhaps a household wage earner had to take an appreciable cut in pay since the FAFSA filing? Is your EFC and the resulting award letter really going to reflect your ability to pay? No!
What if you have three younger children that you are paying for a parochial school education? Is there anywhere on the FAFSA that accounts for that expense, affecting your ability to pay for college? No. Perhaps you now have unexpected, unreimbursed medical expenses or have to help a widowed parent…
These are all circumstances that fall under your opportunity to submit a Special Circumstances Appeal. This is of particular concern for the next and future rounds of financial aid form submissions. Starting with the 2017-2018 college school year forms will begin to be submitted in October. Since a 2016 tax return will not be available, you will be using 2015 tax return information. You are using 2015 tax information but your student will not be enrolled for almost two full years. Is there a chance that something has materially changed? Absolutely.
Congress delegated the authority to college financial aid administrators to make adjustments when there are special circumstances. (Higher Education Act of 1965).
As mentioned above, examples of special circumstances include an actual or anticipated job loss or salary reduction, death of a wage earner, high unreimbursed medical bills, unusually high child care costs, private elementary and secondary school tuition, parents themselves enrolled in college, unusual capital gains and other one-time events, and the cost of care for a parent.
So how does a family appeal their financial aid award? Unfortunately, you will not find a flashing, neon colored alert on a school’s website that says “click here to file your special circumstances appeal!” Sometimes you might find it in the student or parents handbook, right behind how to make arrangements for gluten-free meals. Most schools do have a form for parents to use. I would suggest using the schools search engine and enter special circumstances appeal. If a form or a process isn’t readily available, call the financial aid officer that signed the students award letter and ask them how to appeal.
The “golden rule” of appeals is to make sure you provide incontrovertible documentation about your circumstances:
- When you submit a special circumstances appeal you will likely be chosen for a verification audit if you haven’t already. This is not anything to be concerned about. Most public schools have to audit about 30% of all households and some privates audit 100%. During verification, the college financial aid administrator will ask the family to supply copies of documentation, such as income tax returns, W-2’s, and 1099 forms, to verify the data that was submitted on the FAFSA.
- If a breadwinner has lost a job they should provide a termination letter or layoff notice, a final paystub, and any current and expected unemployment you may receive for that tax year.
- If a parent has taken an appreciable cut in pay, they should provide the circumstances as to why, along with a comparison of a before and after paystub.
- In the case of expenses that are “blind” to the FAFSA, consider submitting a list of the large categories of household monthly or annual financial obligations that are related to the specific special circumstance(s) you are appealing.
- For example, if you are paying K-12 tuition identify the number of children attending and the total tuition for all the children.
- If you have unanticipated medical expenses, identify the nature of the situation, the original total of the unreimbursed expense, the outstanding balance and whatever payback arrangements have been made or what you anticipate your monthly and annual obligation will be until the expense is retired.
- If you are providing care for a parent describe the circumstances, the nature of the care and your current and anticipated monthly expenditures.
Remember, you are appealing for the financial aid office to exercise “professional judgement” granted to them by Congress to reevaluate your financial need. Be respectful. Do NOT say you want to “negotiate” the aid being awarded to your student. A successful appeal should result in a recalculation of your expected family contribution (EFC) and will “open” an opportunity for the school to offer more aid to meet that need.
Remember, 100% of the time that you do not appeal will result in no additional assistance!
Good luck and be respectfully persistent!
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