How to Negotiate a Financial Aid Award

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: April 12, 2019

You may remember months ago you completed the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA form, sponsored by the U.S. State Department of Education provided your family with an index called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This amount told colleges how much you could afford to pay for the cost of attendance, including tuition, room, board, and fees. With this information, colleges formulated a financial aid package comprised of scholarships, grants, work-study, and loans.

A top goal for families is that colleges come as close as possible to meeting their financial need. For example, in an ideal scenario for a family with an EFC of $12,000, the college would offer the family aid resources to cover the cost of attendance, minus $12,000. Some colleges can achieve 100% of financial need, while others do a poor job. A competitive financial aid package is one that covers at least 90% of the family’s financial need.

To illustrate, let’s assume the student is attending a college where the cost of attendance is $50,000. The student’s need was assessed by FAFSA to be $12,000. The college financial aid office offered the student a package that totals $7,000. The college has met only 18% of the student’s need. A more competitive aid package would offer at least 90% or $34,200. Hence the family is faced with paying a price for college that is significantly more than they can afford.

As an important next step for this family, I would advise putting together a request to the college to re-assess the family’s financial situation and provide more scholarship and grant aid.

How to Write a Financial Aid Negotiation Letter

Negotiating a better financial aid deal is as simple as drafting a letter to colleges explaining why your student is deserving of more financial aid. For highly qualified students weighing competitive college acceptance offers, there may have some leverage. Before you start the financial aid negotiation process, check with the college’s policy. Some schools have an official process on how they handle financial aid re-evaluations.

But the simplest and most used method is writing and sending a letter to your student’s assigned financial aid officer. The most effective financial aid appeal letters incorporate these three strategies:

1. Use Other College Offers as a Bargaining Chip.

When applying to colleges, I recommend students apply to schools that are known for offering competitive aid packages. Even if there’s not a strong intent on attending the college or university, the student may be able to use the package provided to leverage more funding from the favored school.

Last year, I had a student who was accepted into both Ithaca College and Bard College. His top choice was Ithaca. But Bard offered him more financial aid. We sent a letter to Ithaca, outlining the financial aid assistance provided by Bard. Within a week, Ithaca’s financial aid office issued a new award letter that topped Bard’s award. Immediately, the student accepted Ithaca’s offer.

2. Do Your Research.

Before you draft a letter, you should be familiar with the college’s aid sources and their limits. For instance, the Pell Grant’s maximum award amount is $6,095. It is worth spending some time researching grant and loan limits. Also, you can check with the financial aid office to find out the maximum amount in federal student aid that your family qualifies for. Also, look into what private grants and scholarship funds may exist at the school. The first clue is to see what grant awards have been offered already and see if the school can increase these amounts.

3. Explain Financial Hardship.

Family financial data entered into financial aid forms, both the FAFSA and CSS Profile, lag behind two years. Therefore, like many families, by the time you apply for financial aid, your current financial situation may have changed due to job loss, change in marital status, or major medical expenses for example. You should document any of these changes and add them as support to your financial aid appeal letter.


Make sure that you locate and address your letter to the financial aid officer assigned to your student to avoid any delays. Upon receipt of the letter, the financial aid office will review the appeal letter and supporting documentation. Once the college financial aid office makes a decision, you can expect a letter explaining their decision, along with an updated award letter (if a change has been made in the student’s favor).

If the college decides not to grant more financial aid to cover the cost of attendance gap, you may look to other alternatives. These include applying for local scholarships, enrolling in the school’s tuition payment plan program, and applying for low-interest private loans.

Freemium Financial Aid Tool

Need help with drafting a college financial aid negotiation letter? Download a free template that has worked with my clients.

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