Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Bottom Line? Tell Colleges What You Need.

Many colleges reinstated May 1 as the deadline for newly admitted applicants to declare that they will enroll and submit deposits. But as that deadline has come and gone, students still have time to appeal to a college for more financial aid, if they need to.

It is not too late.  Trust me.

Last year, in the depths of pandemic uncertainty, many colleges extended their traditional deposit deadlines by a month or more to give students and families more time to assess their financial situation and consider options. This year, many colleges have reverted to May 1 (or in many cases, beyond) since the first of the month falls on a weekend — as “decision day."

If your decision depends on the financial aid offer, you can still ask for a review of your aid package, especially if your finances have changed. Often, schools can render decisions within a few days.  And some institutions may even extend your deposit deadline, if you ask.  
Colleges are keenly aware that families may require flexibility.

One big factor this year is that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — the gateway to federal as well as state and much institutional financial help, known as FAFSA — required students to report financial information from 2019. So families that fell on hard times during the pandemic may find their aid offers don’t reflect their true situation.

If the pandemic has caused a significant decline in income, a job loss or added medical expenses, you should let the school know.  College financial aid officials have discretion to use “professional judgment” to increase aid if a student’s circumstances have changed. Many students are unaware that they can appeal aid offers, but it’s a rather common practice.

FormSwift, a digital document company, has created SwiftStudent, a free tool to help students file appeals. The foundation sought advice from colleges and financial aid professionals to design the tool.  It explains the appeals process and provides templates that students can use to write letters to submit to their colleges.  Its absolutely brilliant and I cannot recommend utilizing it if needed, enough.  
It allows and empowers students to advocate for themselves.

This year, it’s particularly important for students and parents to know they can file an appeal, and that it’s not an unusual step.

In a survey last fall, college financial aid counselors reported “notable” increases in requests for professional judgment reviews, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. The group will conduct another survey next month to update its findings.

Here are some questions and answers about financial aid:

I’m confused by my aid letters. How can I make sure I am correctly comparing offers?

Colleges are encouraged to use standard formats for aid letters and avoid jargon, but not all do. Be careful to distinguish between “gift” aid, like grants and scholarships, which doesn’t have to be repaid, and loans, which do. Subtract the gift aid from the college’s cost of attendance — the total cost of tuition, housing, meals, books and supplies — to get a net price. Do this for each school before considering how much of the cost you can cover from savings and earnings, and how much you would have to borrow to cover any shortfall.

A nonprofit group that works to help students afford college with less debt, uAspire, created a free online cost calculator to help applicants make “apples to apples” comparisons of aid offers. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also offers an online tool to compare offers, and the Institute for College Access & Success offers a tip sheet.

And remember: You aren’t obligated to borrow all, or any, of the loans that are included in your aid letter.  In fact, try to utilize as little loan funding as possible, opting for Federal over Private.  On the other hand, some colleges may not include the maximum amount of federal student loans for which you are eligible. So if you think you may need to borrow more, call the financial aid office to discuss your situation.

What documentation do I need when making a financial aid appeal?

Colleges vary in how they evaluate an appeal. But gather anything that shows reduced hours or wages, like letters from employers, pay stubs or unemployment records, as well as medical bills, to help make your case.

Can I make an enrollment deposit at more than one college?

Colleges frown on this practice since you ultimately can’t attend more than one college, and making two deposits means another student — one on the wait list, or a late applicant — won’t be offered a spot. It also works against less affluent applicants, who may be unable to afford more than one deposit. Generally, Admissions Representatives will try to discourage this.

While it was possible that a school could rescind an offer of admission for violating the terms of the deposit agreement, it might be difficult for the college to know that a student has submitted multiple deposits.

(It’s generally deemed reasonable if students are on a wait list for one college and make a deposit at a second college in case the first institution never accepts them.)

Students and their families may be torn, however, given the unusual circumstances of the pandemic.

However if students were unable to visit a campus because of Covid-19 restrictions and want to see it in person before committing, he said, they may decide to make two deposits to hold their spots before choosing.

The downside? Deposits, often as much as $500, are typically nonrefundable. Plus, according to the College Board, which administers the S.A.T. and other college tests, some colleges reserve the right to rescind an offer of admission if they discover that a student has made a double deposit.

Another option is to contact the college, explain your situation and request more time.  Students should be honest and direct and ask for what you need.

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