Financial Aid and Unique Family Circumstances: How to Let Colleges Know About Your Financial Situation

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Source: Flickr user [email protected]

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is the federal government’s attempt to put every American family on a level playing field in an effort to award aid fairly.

What happens, however, when the FAFSA does not adequately allow you to express your family’s unique financial circumstances?

For example, the FAFSA asks you to submit financial information for the last full calendar year prior to the fall your child begins college. So, if Sam begins college in September 2015, I would use my 2014 taxes.

But, let’s say I was laid off from my job in January 2015. My 2014 tax return should be a good indicator of my 2015 income, but if I get laid off, that’s no longer the case, as I’m now unemployed.

How do you communicate this important information and to whom do you send it? Imagine trying to find one person in the federal government to address your concerns.

Rest assured, someone is out there to listen to you, but knowing what to tell them and who to tell in the most patient and persistent fashion will undoubtedly be the key to being heard.

So, if you have some unique circumstance here is how you should go about getting this information to the right people:

1. Fill out the FAFSA exactly as indicated

It may be tempting to try to scribble notes into the margin of your FAFSA explaining your scenario. But, don’t make this mistake.

Instead, fill out the FAFSA exactly as it shows, even if the numbers that you put down don’t line up with your current or future financial situation. Give them what they ask for and only what they ask for.

2. Gather documentation needed to demonstrate your change of circumstance

From letters to pay stubs, you’ll want to gather all of the proper documentation that demonstrates how your circumstances or income have changed.

Be thorough here. You’ll want to document as best as you can, down to the dollars and cents and include specific dates.

3. Write a letter telling your story

Once you’ve submitted your FAFSA and gathered all of your documents, the next step is to write a letter that explains everything in detail.

Reference your documentation here, and include any and all relevant details.

4. Send your documentation and letter to each college’s financial aid office directly

Financial Aid Administrators (FAA’s) at individual colleges have the authority to make “professional judgment” changes to the info you submit on the FAFSA. They are the only ones who may make the changes and they may only do so with proper documentation from you.

So, going back to the above example, here is what I would do:

I construct a letter to each financial aid office giving them the date on which I was laid off and the amount I earned year-to-date prior to my lay off. I indicate the amount of unemployment compensation I receive per week and the number of weeks for which I am eligible to receive these benefits.

If I have a concrete employment position on the horizon, I can let them know this, along with accompanying income figures, but if I have no such plans, I can only report what I definitely know, which, in this case is that I have unemployment compensation for a given number of weeks.  What I have just done is to give the financial aid administrator the best picture of how my year is likely to look, financially speaking.

Each school can make the adjustments as they see fit, but giving them the necessary facts and figures will allow them to do this easily.

Perhaps the most challenging part of all of this is being persistent enough to ensure your letter gets into the hands of someone who can give it the time and attention it needs and deserves. This will likely require you to make follow up emails or phone calls, perhaps enduring long hold times in what are chronically busy offices.

Just remember, polite patience and persistence will pay off.

3 thoughts on “Financial Aid and Unique Family Circumstances: How to Let Colleges Know About Your Financial Situation”

  1. Jill Mattos says:

    Regarding your article on financial aid. If our circumstances have changed, not as a result of a layoff, but a decision to start a start up, will that be looked at favorably by the school?

  2. Kate Trinh says:

    Thank you for your article on Special Circumstances. I have a question regarding when to send this type of letter to the FA office. I was laid off at the end of 2015 and have just submitted the FAFSA and CSS application, which includes a large one time severance. Should I send a letter explaining my position now (before knowing whether or not my daughter will be accepted to the college), or should I wait until she is accepted and only send the appeal letters to those schools that have accepted her (my only concern is that this may be too late and much of the aid has already been awarded). Thank you very much for your advice.

    1. Tyler Hakes Tyler Hakes says:

      Kate, here’s Lynell’s response:

      Your question about when to notify a financial aid office of your special circumstances is a good one without an easy answer. If you tell them now and she has yet to be accepted, will your letter get lost in the shuffle? Possibly, though that alone wouldn’t stop me from sending it now. You can always follow up with a phone call to make sure it’s been received and considered. The bigger issue for me is one of leverage. If you inform them of your situation up front, do, you lose the compelling argument to go back to the school and request more money based on special circumstances? If the initial financial aid package is inadequate, you could write a letter of appeal based on your special circumstances and have a good reason to request more money. In your case, though, where your financial info reflects extra money that you want them to consider discounting, I’d suggest your tell them up front now so that they have all the pertinent facts.

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