Ron Lieber: Schools do weigh appeals on financial aid

New York TimesApril 4, 2014 

The era of the financial aid appeal has arrived in full, and April is the month when much of the action happens.

For decades, in-the-know families have gone back to college financial aid officers to ask for a bit more grant money after the first offer arrived. But word has spread, and the combination of the economic collapse in 2008-09 and the ever-rising list price for tuition and expenses has led to a torrent of requests for reconsideration.

Do not call it bargaining. Or negotiation. That makes financial aid officers angry, as they don't like to think of themselves as presiding over an open-air bazaar. But that's not to say that you shouldn't ask.

Whatever you call your request for reconsideration, keep this in mind: For all of the real, important work of forging minds that goes on behind the ivy-covered walls, this is also an industry.

The people who work in it are obsessed with carefully managing enrollment and making sure that they don't give away too much money.

To accomplish these goals, Carnegie Mellon uses proprietary statistical modeling, while consultants like Noel-Levitz sell revenue management systems.

All that business jargon is not to suggest that they aren't discounting. It happens, a lot. Knowing a bit more about how the process works may help you get a lower price if you don't like the figures on the award letter that your child has received.

In recent weeks, I sent notes to a few dozen of the most expensive colleges and universities in the country seeking answers to a few basic questions about appeals. Some declined to help or were nearly monosyllabic, perhaps reflecting either their distaste for appeals or their 100-hour workweeks at the moment.

The responses I did get led me to believe that there were two main kinds of appeals, and only the first had a reasonably high likelihood of success.

Your best shot with an appeal will come from a change in your family's financial circumstances since you applied for aid. Possibilities include job loss or other reduction in income, new health expenses, death of a parent, disability of a family member, nursing home costs, natural disasters or parental credit woes that make borrowing impossible.

When you make the appeal, Kelly O'Brien, the director of financial aid at Trinity College, suggests that it be written, quantified and documented.

Here are some circumstances not to cite: McRae Goldberg of Occidental once heard from a family that wanted allowances for $3,000 in monthly groceries, including $1,000 for dairy products. Then there was another family with $30,000 in medical expenses after a cancer diagnosis. Documentation arrived, and it was for the family cat.

So what are your odds of success when you ask for more grant money that you don't have to pay back? Some universities claim they don't track the batting average of appealers, while others almost certainly do but didn't want to tell me.

But a few institutions did give up some numbers. At Occidental, the financial aid office approved the appeals of one-third of the entire entering class (including those who did not apply for financial aid). Eugene Lang College at the New School reports a 57% success rate among all its students who have appealed. At Cornell and Sarah Lawrence, it's about 50%.

Sometimes, misunderstandings occur. Most families are applying for financial aid for the first or second time, so they make mistakes. Financial aid officers aren't infallible either. The rules around divorced parents, home equity and small-business revenue can throw people for a loop. If similar schools offer radically different amounts, it's worth finding out if there was an error.

Many institutions also give away "merit" scholarships to students they want to attract, regardless of whether they can afford to pay the entire cost of attendance and have no financial need.

This is where things get tricky. Many families get merit scholarships but also have financial need. But it's often hard to get one school that offers need-based aid but no merit aid to match the overall grant package of another school that offers both.

The worst that can happen is that the financial aid office says no, so many parents will be tempted to try get a better offer anyway.

But Deborah Fox, a veteran family aid adviser, tries to talk them into putting the student at center stage. "I prefer the student appealing," she said. "Colleges have to deal with pushy parents all the time." She claims a higher success rate with this approach.

 

Ron Lieber is a New York Times columnist. He can be reached at @ronlieber on Twitter. Read more of his columns at fblinks.com/lieber

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