There has been an increase in families seeking professional judgment for special situations that have caused a decrease in income in recent years, says Palmira Wakhisi, assistant director for financial aid at Morehouse College. Among the circumstances cited by Morehouse applicants are layoffs, divorce, separation, illness, and the death of a parent, Wakhisi says. The Atlanta-based college awards students up to $10,000 more on average in such cases through a Restricted Scholarship Fund established to fill in the gaps between a family’s financial aid offer and what the family can ultimately afford, Wakhisi says.
There doesn’t have to be a reduction in income to get a financial aid adjustment. Families can also point to circumstances not reflected on the FAFSA that affect their financial situation such as eldercare expenses, the costs of caring for a special needs child, or a natural disaster that caused home damage. Lifestyle choices don’t count, so don’t expect a financial aid adjustment just because you live in an expensive state, for example.
Once you decide to appeal the financial aid decision, call the college and ask about the procedure. “Some colleges have a form they want you to fill out. Others will say, ‘send us a letter in which you summarize the unusual circumstances,’” Kantrowitz says.
If a school’s financial aid office refuses to adjust the award after the professional judgment, there is nothing more you can do at that school. At this point, you should look for other sources of aid to bridge the gap such as traditional part-time employment, or applying for a volunteer repayment program after graduation. “If you appeal to the president of the university or the U.S. Department of Education, you will get nowhere because Congress delegated authority only to the college financial aid administrator,” Kantrowitz says. But you can repeat the process with another school, which is why it’s important to apply to several institutions, experts say. Says Hurley, “As a consumer you’re looking for the best deal as well as the best education.”