Since this is such a frequently asked question in the financial aid inbox, we thought we would write a blog about it.
Opening up the hood for a second to take a peek into the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) formula (which Alia Georges did more extensively here)—the financial aid process is meant to serve the majority of students and families across the United States attending all types of colleges. For the most part, it does. The FAFSA is intended to both accurately distribute federal funds and assist with the equitable distribution of limited institutional funds. The FAFSA collects information about your family, your assets, and your income from your most recently completed federal tax return.
We expect there to be a natural fluctuation of income on your tax return from year to year—this natural ebb and flow is accounted for with the annual completion of the FAFSA. So, when would it be appropriate to appeal your aid offer? We would be looking for a change in life circumstance which impacted your family’s available financial resources. Examples include things like a job loss or furlough, higher than average paid medical expenses that are not covered by insurance, a death in the family, or a divorce. Sometimes parents care for an elderly parent or a student has a sibling with a disability, and a portion of the family income needs to support these situations. When these things happen, the financial aid office has the discretion to use our professional judgment in how we evaluate income and assets. Through documentation, we could consider using an income that is different from what is required to be reported on your FAFSA.
An appeal is not for things like high credit card debt, the house needed a new roof, or a younger sibling attends private school (although if the younger sibling attends a private school because of a documented disability that the public school cannot support, that would be something to tell us!). These are accounted for in considering the overall financial strength of the family, or (and this is the hard one for families to understand) are more personal decisions and situations that we cannot consider because doing so would impact the equitable distribution of funds we are charged to protect. While we certainly understand that some situations do not feel like “choices,” considering them for some families and not others would be unfair. What we can evaluate is the available income and assets—how families allocate those resources is a family decision. Remember also that the primary responsibility for paying for an undergraduate education lies with the student and their family. The school and the federal government are meant to help and support that, but not replace it. And that is the soapbox speech that every financial aid director has a hard time making…especially this financial aid director, who happens to also have two kids in college!
A couple of important considerations: When completing your FAFSA, always complete it using the appropriate income from the appropriate year—preferably using the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) Data Retrieval process because this provides the school with the most accurate starting point to review the appeal. Wait until you have an initial financial aid offer to respond to before inquiring about an appeal. The discretion to consider a special circumstance is up to each school, so questions and documentation should be directed to the individual financial aid offices. Schools will have their own policies and procedures in reviewing appeals. If a school determines an appeal is warranted, you will need to support your situation with documentation. Sometimes, in the immediate moment of a financial crisis, that documentation is not available yet. A school may advise of a need to wait until a situation evolves before making an evaluation. When an aid officer makes a change to your FAFSA data based on an appeal, we need to be able to support why we made that change, and sometimes that takes time.
An example: Kate is a high school senior applying to enroll in fall 2021. Her parents’ 2019 federal tax returns represent a thriving tourism business in Hawaii. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, her parents had to shutter their business—that income will be reflected in their 2020 tax return they will soon file. Kate’s family could appeal detailing their circumstances and ask that we consider their 2020 income rather than 2019.
Or: John is a high school senior applying to enroll in fall 2021. His family income has been relatively stable over the last few years. His mother works in information technology on a contract basis. Her contract just ended, and she does not have one immediately lined up. This is a tough one, for both the family and the financial aid office. The family needs to decide where John should attend, not knowing if mom will secure a new contract. The financial aid office does not have a lot of information to respond to in the moment because the situation is immediate and fluid. We want to provide you an answer, but we just don’t have all the information to make a determination. The answer will probably be to get back in touch with financial aid in a few months and provide an update on the situation.
At Olin, an appeal for additional assistance is not a negotiation process. This is because the foundation of our financial aid policy is to meet your demonstrated financial need. Our initial financial aid offer is our best given the family financial circumstances presented to us. If those circumstances change, please let us know!
Takeaways? Fluctuations in income and demonstrated need are to be expected from year to year and are not on their own a basis for an appeal for additional aid. Income can both go down, but it can also (and more frequently does!) go up. The financial aid offer is based on the family’s relative financial strength.
Circumstances change! We know this, and we know that families are experiencing more changes in economic situations than ever before. We are here for you to discuss those changes and brainstorm options. We will do what we can while being good stewards of Olin’s need-based aid funds to help make Olin affordable for you.
Questions? Email us at email@example.com.
Jean Ricker is Olin's Director of Financial Aid.