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How to get more college aid money now amid the coronavirus pandemic

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Now more than ever, it may pay for students to negotiate with colleges for more money towards tuition.

The coronavirus pandemic has left many American families facing financial hardship. More than half of U.S. high-school seniors have a parent or guardian who lost a job, has been laid off or was furloughed during this challenging time, according to a new poll by market research firm Art & Science Group. More than a quarter of these students say their first-choice college or university may no longer be affordable. 

However, colleges are also concerned about their fall enrollment, which is likely to drop. Many have already extended decision day for incoming freshmen to June 1 or later.

That means colleges may be more willing to say "yes" to appeals for more financial aid and scholarship money — for both new and returning students, said Shannon Vasconcelos, who works with incoming freshmen and their families as director of college finance at Bright Horizons College Coach. She is also the former assistant director of financial aid at Tufts University.

"I would recommend just about everybody go back to the colleges they may be interested in and ask for more money," she said.

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"The worst a college will do is say, 'No, sorry we have no more money for you,'" Vasconcelos added. "They are not going to rescind their decision.

"They are not going to take away money they already gave you."

In fact, Vasconcelos has noticed both an uptick in the amount of money being granted on appeals and a willingness on the part of colleges that have never negotiated in the past to now do so.

There are different tactics to getting more money, depending on whether it is need-based financial aid or merit-based scholarship money.

Asking for more financial aid

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Financial aid decisions were made for the incoming freshman class based on 2018 income levels. To appeal for more funds, you can present them with new information not included in the original ask.

Vasconcelos said common reasons include:

  • A job loss
  • A hit to your savings since you completed the application
  • High out-of-pocket medical expenses
  • Support of elderly relative or family overseas
  • Extra medical or care expenses for a special needs child
  • Private high school tuition for a younger sibling
  • Capital gains on stocks in 2018 that was not repeated
  • You are no longer receiving the child support you got in 2018
  • Parents' student loan debt

To file your appeal, the first thing you should do is go to the school's website and see if there is an official appeal form.

"Research what the institution's process is and make sure you follow all protocols," said certified financial planner Whit Newton, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based wealth management advisor for Northwestern Mutual.

"Make sure you don't miss out because you missed a deadline or didn't fill out a form correctly."

If there is no form, then send an email to the school's financial aid office, explaining the situation and what has changed since you filled out your initial financial aid application. Ask them to consider additional aid in light of the new circumstances.

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However, just don't make a blanket ask, said Newton. Instead, be specific with the amount of money you need to be able to attend the school.

Include documentation to support your request, such as a termination or furlough letter, a large medical bill or updated bank statements.

If you didn't initially apply financial aid but feel you may now qualify, fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and explain the change in circumstances, Vasconcelos recommends.

Merit-based scholarships

To request more scholarship money, email the school's admissions office. Personalize your message so the admissions office doesn't think it's receiving a form letter, and give the impression that the school is your top choice.

"You want to convey the message that, 'I would really love to attend your school. It is just the money that is holding me back,'" Vasconcelos said.

Ideally, you'll have an offer from another school you can use as leverage. If so, be sure to include documentation in your email.

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If not, you can put some doubt in their mind about your enrollment by saying you may go to a local state school that costs less.

If there are no cheaper options, it still doesn't hurt to try. Just let them know that you aren't sure if you can swing the costs, particularly under the current circumstances.

Asking if there are any other scholarships you can apply for is a nice way to phrase an ask for more money, especially if you have no competing offers or cheaper options to negotiate with, Vasconcelos said.

The bottom line

If you do get additional financial aid or scholarship money, make sure you clarify whether the money is renewable or not.

Typically you apply for need-based financial aid every year, while scholarship money tends to be renewable as long as you maintain a certain GPA and credit load.

Just remember to do your due diligence as you move forward with the appeals process.

Edmit and FormSwift's SwiftStudent offer free templates to help you write an appeal letter. And, at TuitionFit, you can compare your financial aid award offer to the offers that similar families have received from the colleges they applied to so that you can compare actual prices and use that information to help you negotiate a better deal.

"Researching your options and … using all resources available will absolutely help put you in a better spot," Newton said.

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