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Here's how college students can angle for more financial aid as pandemic hits pocketbooks

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It's an annual part of the college process.

Every year, families fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

It's a financial scan that determines a student's eligibility for government money (federal and state) to help pay college costs. FAFSA takes your financial info and calculates your financial need, based on the cost of attending your school and a number known as the expected family contribution.

That number is supposed to be what a family could contribute toward education, says Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Attainment Network, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit whose mission is closing equity gaps in higher education.

It looks at a student's eligibility for the Pell Grant, among other things, which goes to families with incomes below $50,000. The expected family contribution also considers work-study, but these programs are up in the air now because they take place on campus, Cook says.

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The FAFSA uses income information from two years ago: For the upcoming school year, that means 2018. "For many students, unfortunately, that is not going to be a good indicator of what their income is this year," Cook said. 

In fact, FAFSA applications for returning college students began dipping after March 15, according to the National College Attainment Network, which tracks completed applications.

Especially hard hit were students from low-income households. By April 15, there were 178,000 fewer returning FAFSA applicants.

Financial help is going to become even more critical as college expenses keep rising. The average cost for tuition and fees plus room and board at a four-year-private college was $49,870 in the 2019-20 school year. For a four-year, in-state public college it was $21,950, according to the College Board.

Record-high unemployment has torn holes in most household budgets, but there is an appeals process to try for more assistance.

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The top thing to remember, experts say, is never be afraid to ask for more money.

"Some people are afraid schools will rescind an offer and take away the money they've been offered," said Shannon Vasconcelos, director of college finance at Bright Horizons College Coach.

"Appealing can help you or do nothing at all, but it won't hurt," said Vasconcelos, who is also the former assistant director of financial aid at Tufts University.

You may have more bargaining power than you think.

Vasconcelos says she's seen some unusually generous offers this year. In a typical year, families that have successfully appealed and gotten more funding received about $3,000 more, on average, Vasconcelos says. "This year, we've also seen increases of $5,000, $10,000, $15,000 — numbers that were almost unheard of in the past," Vasconcelos said.

Not enough people know about professional judgment. Specific phrases about your numbers and situation will start the conversation for a professional judgment.
Kim Cook
executive director of the National College Attainment Network

Schools gave families more money either because of their changed financial circumstances, or because they based their negotiations on better offers from other schools, Vasconcelos says.

You won't be the only one asking for a reassessment. "I wouldn't be surprised if [the high unemployment rate] doubles or triples the number of appeals," said higher-education expert Mark Kantrowitz, vice president of research at Savingforcollege.com and the author of "How to Appeal for More College Aid." 

Here's what to know about requesting more aid, and the best ways to do it. 

Start here

It's up to individual schools to offer more financial assistance, Cook says. In other words, if you applied to several schools, you'll need to contact each one separately and request the review.

Internally, at the financial aid office, the process is called professional judgment, Cook says. 

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The FAFSA lacks a way for a family to fill in the shading of its personal financial circumstances. Instead, the professional judgment gives that review to the school's financial aid office. The school can then look at a family's situation in finer focus. 

Start by contacting the institution. You'll tell them you need to talk about a change in your circumstances.

"You can have varying results," Cook said, as each school will conduct its own review and make its own determination of what they can offer.

Be specific

"Not enough people know about professional judgment," Cook said. "Specific phrases about your numbers and situation will start the conversation for a professional judgment."

Many people don't realize that life-altering circumstances — lost income, extraordinary health-care expenses, death of a parent — are substantial reasons to get a school to alter its offer, when possible, Cook says.

"These are not pleasant conversations to have, but they certainly affect a student's ability to pay," she said.

Beyond changes in actual income, a family can request more aid because of anything that's affected your family, Kantrowitz said.

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Higher unreimbursed medical expenses, a greater financial burden due to education shifting to online — desks, supplies, paying for high-speed internet and computers fall under this category— and having to make special accommodations for a disability are all reasons that could qualify you for additional assistance.

Kantrowitz says many circumstances could be used to request more assistance, such as: 

  • high legal fees, especially of an involuntary nature;
  • costs related to a change in climate;
  • excessive consumer debt not due to lifestyle choices, such as debt associated with a special circumstance;
  • high cost of living in certain major metropolitan areas;
  • funerals; and
  • loan payments on a parent's prior educational debt.

File ASAP

Whether your family has experienced a small change or a big one, from being furloughed to actually losing your job, Kantrowitz recommends appealing at each and every change.

"The early bird gets the appeal," Kantrowitz said, so file as soon as you have a change in circumstances.

Document like crazy

Anchiy | E+ | Getty Images

Remember: This process is for those who have experienced a material change in financial circumstances, not for those who are simply dissatisfied with the amount of assistance offered, Vasconcelos says. 

You need to document exactly what happened with lots of detail, not just a letter that says you lost your job. 

For instance, specify the date your job ended. Include a notice of termination or furlough. Detail the amounts of your income: what it was, what it dropped to. Show copies of pay stubs or checks, and your unemployment benefit determination.

"Give copies of documentation related to your special circumstances," Kantrowitz said, whether it's buying special equipment or supporting an extra family member.

"Financial aid offices are audited by the Department of Education and need to keep documentation in their file," Vasconcelos said. "They love documentation."

Your interim plan

You may have to wait for a decision if a school wants to wait till January for a complete picture on income for 2020.

In that case, you'll need to figure out how to pay tuition.

Extremely low interest rates might make student loans a possibility, Vasconcelos says. You could consider going on a monthly payment plan, which most schools allow.

I would tell families to be very wary about withdrawing or borrowing but it is an option as a stop-gap measure.
Shannon Vasconcelos
director of college finance at Bright Horizons College Coach

The CARES Act relaxed some of the rules on borrowing from a retirement plan. "I would tell families to be very wary about withdrawing or borrowing but it is an option as a stop-gap measure if you are very confident your finances will bounce back quickly," she added.

Private scholarships tend to make up a very small piece of the puzzle, and it's very possible you might have missed deadlines.

Students may be considering a gap year or semester, because of remote learning as well as the money. Proceed with caution. "You might have to give up your spot in the class and reapply for the following year," Vasconcelos said.

Follow up

You may have to be patient. Financial aid offices are seeing unprecedented numbers of appeals right now, along with many other uncertainties within the college administration, Vasconcelos says. 

Ordinarily she recommends following up after a week to make sure they haven't forgotten about you. In these times, you might consider waiting about two weeks. 

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