Naturally, the more money you earn the less financial aid you’re likely to get. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 85% of students whose parents made $20,000 or less received federal aid, while 53.2% of students whose parents made $60,000 to $79,000 received federal aid in the 2007–2008 school year, the most recent year for which statistics are available. The percentage drops to 39% of students whose parents made $100,000 or more. While merit awards aren’t based on need, they can be competitive. For example, the National Merit Scholarship Program, which awards scholarships for academic achievement, accepts more than 1.5 million applicants each year to come up with about 8,400 winners of financial awards.
If you’re not satisfied with the amount of financial aid your child has been offered by his or her first choice school, the first thing you want to do is compare it with the financial awards offered by other institutions. If there is a large disparity, “Go back and ask the school if they have all of the family’s financial information, because their award is significantly less than what other schools have awarded,” says Carpenter. Anecdotally, Carpenter has seen cases where schools realized they made an error when calculating the amount for which a family was eligible. He’s also seen cases in which schools have been willing to adjust an award upward for desirable students. Be ready to show documentation (such as an award letter) of the other awards. If that doesn’t work, the next step is to provide additional information that paints a better picture for financial aid administrators of why your family needs additional assistance.
Making Your Case
“There is recognition both by Congress and by the colleges that the FAFSA is a one-size-fits-all form that doesn’t capture every specific circumstance,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of scholarship and financial aid sites Fastweb.com and FinAid.org and author of Secrets to Winning a Scholarship (CreateSpace; $9.95). As a result, a process called “professional judgment” was established that takes place when a family believes that an unusual financial circumstance was not adequately addressed by the FAFSA. Professional judgment could be requested, for example, if a family’s income is largely made up of a one-time bonus, meaning it’s not reflective of the family’s day-to-day financial situation. It could also be requested if a parent has had work hours reduced or has suffered a health challenge that’s led to steep medical bills. “You’re asking the college to review that particular circumstance and potentially make adjustments to the financial aid award,” Kantrowitz says.