Colleges around the country are fielding more appeals for additional aid than usual. At North Carolina's Davidson College, the number of appeals had jumped sixfold by March before the school had even sent students award letters detailing their financial-aid packages compared with the same period last year. At Iowa's Grinnell College, appeals for more funds have jumped as much as 50% compared to last spring, and the aid office at the University of Texas at Austin estimates that half the phone calls it receives these days are requests for an aid bump. Earlier this month, the Department of Education sent a letter reminding financial-aid administrators of their power to adjust federal aid awards using "professional judgment" and documentation, and encouraging them in this economy to consider students with special circumstances. "The ones who have been appealing right now have been in dire straits," says Bobbi Carpenter, director of financial aid at Virginia's Sweet Briar College. "They don't want to make the $500 deposit knowing they're not going to be able to afford us." (See pictures of the college dorm's evolution.)
As many as half those appeals, financial-aid officers say, are likely to be successful. Families who can document a concrete change in circumstances such as a layoff or a salary cut have the best chance. But those who can't need not despair. Some applicants have successfully argued that aid officers overlooked a key piece of their financial picture the first time around, such as the cost of elder care, childcare, medical bills, rent or private secondary-school tuition. Officers also report that they have leeway to adjust aid packages if parents make the case that they are nearing retirement age and need to preserve more of their savings instead of exhausting them on college tuition. This year, says Seth Allen, Grinnell's dean of admission and financial aid, more families are appealing on grounds that, after one parent had to follow a job to a different state, they now find themselves supporting two households. "The typical financial-aid process doesn't usually give us those kinds of nuances," Allen says. "It's really up to the family to determine, is this a reasonable award? And if not, let me go back to the financial aid office."
Of course, finding an aid award unreasonable is different from simply finding it unpleasant. One kind of appeal no college will consider is from families who probably can afford to pay what's being asked of them but would simply rather spend the money elsewhere. "We want to fund a family's need," says Allen. "We can't afford to fund their want."
Nor are aid officers likely to adjust offers made to families who are merely anticipating a change in circumstances. What if that looming layoff never materializes? Instead, financial-aid officers recommend waiting until the worst comes true and then getting in touch. Pronto.
If a student's financial need has grown enough, federal funding may also kick in. Sweet Briar's Carpenter recalls one student whose family income was $250,000 when she applied and had dropped to $50,000 by the time she was admitted this spring. She is now eligible for federal Pell grants, which were increased to $4,860 per student this year under the economic stimulus package passed in February.
When making an appeal, aid officers say, phone is always better than e-mail for the initial contact. And stressing how much a student wants to attend a particular school can't hurt as long as it comes off sounding sincere. While awards are largely determined by economic factors, aid officers also recommend giving the appeal a more personal touch by having the student, rather than the parent, make the first call. "You tend to see [financial-aid officers] doing more because you're trying to help the student," says Chris Gruber, Davidson's vice president for admission and financial aid. "It seems a little more genuine to us than perhaps somebody sitting at their desk and calling the five colleges that a student has been admitted to and trying to jockey for greater dollars."
That kind of jockeying is a bad strategy, officers note. Trying to start a bidding war is generally a losing proposition in part because every school's resources and aid calculations are different. Colleges will rarely match an offer outright. That doesn't mean applicants shouldn't bring up other schools' awards, however, because the comparison may turn up extra data that one school had not taken into consideration. "If the generous award is because the family provided additional information to the [other school's] financial-aid office that allowed a more appropriate need-based award to be made, we'll want that information as well," says Grinnell's Allen. "More times than not, we're able to improve the financial-aid award."
So where do schools get the money to help? A few dozen of the wealthiest schools, including Stanford, Princeton and Williams, have pledged to meet every applicant's financial need and don't set caps on how much aid they'll give. But even at colleges with limited resources, the financial-aid budget is somewhat elastic, since some students who were offered aid decide to matriculate elsewhere. "We do tend to unencumber a certain percentage of the financial aid that we've offered to students," says Tom Melecki, director of student financial services at the University of Texas at Austin. "We're hopeful that we'll have some more grant money that we can reallocate to other needy students."
With May matriculation deadlines fast approaching, does putting down a deposit mean you're out of luck if your finances are still in flux? Not necessarily. Many colleges keep reevaluating students' aid packages throughout the year. For instance, Rod Frantz, who works in marketing and public relations in Washington, applied for extra aid this spring for his son, Charles, who is a sophomore at Grinnell. Frantz had put a full-time marketing job on hold two years ago to self-finance a pet project. By the time he was ready to get back into marketing, the economy had tanked, and he says he has been searching "madly" for work these past few months as his savings and unemployment benefits are running out. Even though his wife is still working full-time, their $25,000 yearly contribution to Charles' tuition tab was starting to seem prohibitive. "The thing that was literally keeping me awake at night was having a conversation with my son that, 'You know, Charlie, you're going to have to withdraw from Grinnell,'" Frantz says. In February, he called the school to ask for more help. No definite word yet, but aid officers told him his chances are good. "That was such a huge relief for me," he says Frantz. "I can't begin to explain."
Above all, financial-aid officers are adamant that it never hurts to try. "Talk to us. Make contact," says Carpenter. "We'll do everything we can."