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Wondering what to do with that college financial aid offer? Appeal for more money

Don't settle for the financial aid package you're given because there's a way to get more out of it.

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With universities sending out their admissions decisions in March and April, one aspect on many families' minds these days is how they plan to finance their child's upcoming college education.

While the big anticipation revolves around the college acceptance letter, along with it will be a very important document that can provide budding college parents more guidance on just how much the next four years will cost. This document is the financial aid award letter. This letter outlines how much aid you'll be receiving in the form of grants, scholarships, work-study or student loans.

There's a good chance the financial aid offer isn't enough to send your kid to that specific college, but experts suggest there's a way to get more out of it: Students and parents can maximize their college aid package by appealing for additional money.

"If [the financial aid package] is more than just unaffordable...then there's a sign that maybe something wasn't taken into account," says higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz, author of "How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid. "[Colleges] don't know about your special circumstances unless you tell them."

Here's how to appeal your college financial aid offer, plus what you can expect.

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How to appeal your college financial aid offer

If you're skeptical that you're receiving a financial aid package that's less generous than you expected, an easy first step is to look up the average cost of attendance by family income through the Department of Education's College Navigator website. Here, you can see whether the financial aid package you received is comparable to aid received by families of similar incomes.

Secondly, since colleges use income and tax information from two years prior, you should inform the financial aid office of any financial circumstances that have changed in the past two years. This could be a job loss, a death in the family, a divorce, high medical expenses or even a natural disaster like a hurricane or flood.

Additionally, if you received a financial aid package from a school that gives out merit aid, you might want to include updates on improvements in test scores or GPAs. Since many college rankings rely on students' test scores and GPAs, some schools attract students with top stats by giving them merit aid. Kantrowitz points out, however, that merit aid is often not substantial, typically a few hundred or thousand dollars.

Parents and students should make an appeal as soon as they can, Kantrowitz adds. Some colleges will have a form that prospective students need to fill out to appeal, while other colleges may require that students send in an appeal letter.

Your appeal letter

In order to write an appeal letter, you'll need documentation or evidence of any changes in your family's financial circumstances. For example, if a parent lost their job, you could provide a receipt of unemployment benefits or a copy of proof that they applied for unemployment benefits, Kantrowitz explains. He also recommends that people be concise in their letters: Make bullet points for each special circumstance and then provide copies of documents that prove that the special circumstances have occurred.

Two other tips for writing your appeal letter include reiterating your excitement in attending that school and mentioning any other standout financial aid offers you've received from a competing college, if that is the case. You may find that a college is willing to match or even exceed another offer.

What you can expect when appealing

Kantrowitz wants you to be aware that different types of colleges are less or more amenable to making adjustments to financial aid packages. For-profit colleges are the least likely to make adjustments, whereas in-state public colleges are more likely to make changes, and private nonprofit colleges with large endowments are the most likely to make adjustments.

And not all types of appeals have an equal likelihood of success. Appeals made regarding a change of income are more likely to be successful than other types of appeals, according to Kantrowitz.

Once school is in session, get your finances off to a strong start

Now that you've been accepted to a school and have done everything you could to maximize your financial aid, it's time to make smart money moves so it all pays off. Luckily, there are apps to help college students manage their money early on and on the go.

With an app like Goodbudget, users are required to manually input each one of their transactions using the "envelope method." This way, they're held accountable to practice conscious spending and can see exactly where their money goes each month.

And for college students looking to save, whether it's for a spring break trip or a new laptop, Digit connects to your bank account and automatically saves small amounts of money for you each day. This could be 75 cents, one dollar, five dollars and anything in between. (You can indicate a maximum amount you want Digit to save on any given day.) Digit puts saving on autopilot, so you don't have to manually move money into a separate account.

Bottom line

It's no secret that higher education comes with an expensive price tag. That's why millions of American families rely on the financial aid package colleges offer them. Before settling for what a school awards your child along with that college admission letter, appeal ASAP to see if there are any other funds you can squeeze out. At the end of the day, any little bit helps.

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Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.
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