• August 30, 2014

When Families Ask Colleges for More Money

An inside look at the subjective process of financial-aid appeals

The Personal Side of Deciding Who Gets More Student Aid 1

David Zentz for The Chronicle

From left, Sally Stone Richmond, Maureen McRae, Brett Schraeder, and Robin Thompson, student-aid and enrollment officers at Occidental College, review appeals from families who hope for bigger awards.

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close The Personal Side of Deciding Who Gets More Student Aid 1

David Zentz for The Chronicle

From left, Sally Stone Richmond, Maureen McRae, Brett Schraeder, and Robin Thompson, student-aid and enrollment officers at Occidental College, review appeals from families who hope for bigger awards.

April should bring a sigh of relief to seniors with college acceptances in hand. But for some students and their families, the fat envelope isn't the end of the road.

Take the family of a baseball player and strong student who's been accepted by Occidental College here. After the family poured all of its money into trying to keep its construction business afloat, the business went under. The family is starting over, but its new business won't turn a profit in time to pay the baseball player's college bills. Certainly not this fall.

The family has already received its financial-aid award, which the college sends out with its admissions decisions. Occidental meets every student's full financial need—as determined by the college. But many families still feel unable or unwilling to pay the remaining portion of Occidental's $58,000 cost. So they ask for more money.

Like colleges across the country, Occidental has seen an increase in the number of appeals since the recession. Last year, half of the 1,600 families who applied for aid appealed the decisions.

Most of those requests are processed by the aid office, but a small fraction go to the college's financial-aid appeals committee. The baseball player's appeal falls into the set of those that are complex or sensitive enough to require the committee's attention.

Now, the objective part of the process is over. The committee, a small group of senior admissions and financial-aid staff, will go over the family's request. Committee members will comb through the intimate details of the family's financial life and consider the qualities the son would bring to campus. Then they'll make a judgment call: Will they find a way to give the family more money, making it more likely that the baseball player will enroll, or leave the offer as it stands?

Throughout the spring, the appeals committee meets each Thursday afternoon around a coffee table in the office of Maureen McRae, director of financial aid. Ms. McRae brings the stack of manila folders containing families' appeals and financial information. Sally Stone Richmond, director of admissions, carries in lime-green folders with the students' admissions applications. They are joined by Brett Schraeder, associate vice president for enrollment management, and Robin M. Thompson, associate director of financial aid.

On this day, the group will spend several hours evaluating some two dozen cases, including the baseball player's.

The group knows some families have good reasons for sending in appeals. "What the formula tries to do is put everyone in square boxes, pin them to a grid, and say: This is how much money you need to go to college," Ms. McRae says. "So what the appeals process does is it allows the families to explain why they're not square."

Of course, Occidental has only so much money to give. This year the college plans to spend about $9-million on financial aid for its incoming class. The committee members keep an eye on how much money is freed up through standard adjustments made to families' awards as their tax returns come in. They also watch which students have already sent in deposits, as the college's student-aid spending will depend on the need of those who decide to enroll.

At Occidental, evaluating students' financial need is part of the admissions process, too. The first 70 percent or so of students are selected based on the strength of their applications, without regard for ability to pay. For that last 30 percent, financial need can also play a role. This year, that meant about 120 students weren't admitted, at least in part because they would require too much financial support.

Occidental does support needy students: Officials point out that about 24 percent of the college's students receive federal Pell Grants and about 17 percent are first-generation college students.

The admissions and aid staffs recognize that need-aware admissions is controversial, but they argue it's the fairest approach they can take within their financial constraints. "Maybe I'm a little more paternal about all of this," says Ms. McRae, "but I think what would be unfair would be to admit someone to your college and then say, 'But, we don't have enough money to send you here.'"

'Best We Can Do'

The baseball player's case is one of several the committee considers in which a family's finances have been hurt by the weak economy. "My comment is this family will struggle all four years they're at Oxy," and will likely take on a lot of debt, Ms. McRae says as she introduces the appeal. "And I'm really concerned about whether or not we're doing them a favor."

The parents were well aware that their situation might prevent their son from being able to attend Occidental, and they've been in touch with the staff since the fall.

The group wants to help this family, and Ms. McRae makes several suggestions of how they might. Another child who is in graduate school could be counted as being in college, she says, and Occidental could award the family based on the federal methodology instead of its institutional one. "And that will be the best we can do," she says. Ms. Richmond asks how much extra aid that will mean for the family, and Ms. McRae says she'll have to do the calculation to know that, but she estimates it will give them another $13,000 in grant aid.

"It will be a significant change for them," Mr. Schraeder says. "Whether they can still swing it is another question."

The group decides to go for it. In the end, the members are swayed by the student's strengths and the family's openness. Still, Ms. McRae says, "if they can't swing it on that, there's nothing more we can do."

While each appeal is treated as an individual case, it's clear that many of them fall into categories the group has dealt with before. The committee decides to cap the amount of home equity considered for an athlete from Hawaii, a state the college draws a good number of students from, because its property values are skewed.

The group quickly agrees with Ms. McRae's suggestion that they disregard the income of another student's stepfather. He and the student's mother split up shortly after the financial-aid paperwork was completed, he's not a biological parent, and they think it's unlikely he'll provide support while the divorce is pending.

Other appeals require more discussion, even if the committee members largely agree. They consider the case of a student who describes her parents' gambling problem in a well-written letter. Her family's adjusted gross income, the student writes, has been inflated by their gambling earnings—which are more than offset by their gambling losses.

Mr. Schraeder and Ms. Thompson both point out that they'd want to look at the family's tax return, which has not yet been turned in and which would document the family's gambling losses, to see if it confirms what the student wrote before offering more money.

Ms. McRae says the college could make adjustments if her office looked at the return and got additional confirmation from another relative. That recalculation would make the student eligible for a federal Pell Grant, a federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, and a state Cal Grant, Ms. McRae says. "So the question is, do we want to do that?"

Ms. Richmond points to the student's strong qualities. "The thing that's sort of intriguing us and influencing us a bit is the initiative and the independence that this young woman has shown," she says, "and it's actually verified by what she writes in her app."

Ms. Richmond asks if her colleagues would ever consider asking the student, who doesn't live too far away, to come in with the tax return. Or, she wonders, would that be leading her on?

"Well, actually I think there's a more fundamental issue. If this was 'Dad lost his job,' or had one-time lottery winnings, or went on Jeopardy!, we would be looking at this differently," Ms. McRae says. "Or if this was a coke addiction and all the money went up his nose, would we be looking at it differently than a gambling addiction?"

The committee clearly sees the gambling as an addiction problem, not a choice.

Because the student already received a large financial-aid package and would qualify for state and federal grants if the college reduced her reported income, Occidental would have to spend only another $5,000 or $6,000 of its own money to support her for the year, Mr. Schraeder estimates. "We're not talking like from zero to 40," he says.

Ms. Richmond, now joined by Mr. Schraeder, still wonders if they should invite the student in, or see if she attends an open house. Ms. McRae pushes the group to make a choice right away. "I think we either say we're going to support this kid or not support this kid," she says. "If we do, we change her life right now. If we don't, then she goes to another school. She is not going to not go to college. The question is: Do we want her at our college?"

They do. The committee decides to ask the student for her 2009 and 2010 tax returns and see what happens.

The committee can also be swayed by its sense of whether making an adjustment will really affect a family's ability to afford Occidental. Ms. McRae recommends no changes be made for one student from a "tweener" family, one that is neither financially needy, nor really able to pay the college's cost. In this case, Ms. McRae says, "the only way we could get her any additional money would be to completely waive the home equity, but we think that they would still not be able to afford to come here, so it would be kind of wasting appeal money."

On top of that, the committee is unimpressed that the family complains about the cost of trips the student would have to take between California and her home state, and Ms. Richmond sees in her application file that the student came off as a complainer in her interview.

"They don't really have any appealable things; they just can't do it," Ms. McRae says. The committee decides not to adjust its offer.

Merit-Aid Appeals

Some families fail to gain any sympathy from the committee. Occidental determines its merit awards based on the admissions staff's assessment of the applicants' strength, and it's incredibly rare for the college to change its scholarship offers for any reason. That does not, however, stop some families from trying.

One student who didn't receive any merit money from Occidental sent in his scholarship offers from several other colleges. His family is very well off. "So they're treating this like an investment," Ms. Richmond says, "and they're negotiating."

"I'm such an old-school financial-aid person. This person should have been ashamed," says Ms. McRae. "I mean, there is such a difference between being able to barely pay for school and being able to stretch to pay for school, and being able to cancel a vacation and pay for school."

"In his defense, they never ask for need-based aid," Ms. Thompson says.

Still, says Ms. McRae, "before 20 years ago, merit aid didn't exist."

Ms. Richmond can see why the student would expect merit aid. "As a recruited athlete, there's also this sense, well, one part of your campus wants me, and all the other schools have put their money behind it," she says.

Ms. McRae is unimpressed. "What this family paid in taxes last year would cover tuition all four years."

The committee isn't even considering granting this appeal. Ms. Thompson brought the file in because the student wrote that he looked forward to meeting the college's president, staff, and alumni at a coming reception. The family will get a letter politely declining their request, and the college's president will get a heads up.

At one point, Ms. McRae reads an appeal to show a reporter "how not to appeal for financial aid."

The letter gets off to a bad start, beginning "Dear Financial Aid Officer," rather than including Ms. McRae's name, even though she signs the letter families receive with their aid awards. This family has calculated what its need would be at the college and is arguing that Occidental hasn't met it, despite its commitment to meet need. The problem? The family's calculation is based on federal methodology, not the institutional methodology Occidental uses.

The letter also includes the daughter's GPA, which, the family argues is higher than the average for last year's admitted class—but, as Ms. Richmond points out, the way this student's high school calculates grade points is different from how the admissions office does. And, Ms. Richmond asks, "Did they mention anything about test-score averages, and how she falls well below the test-score average?"

"No, of course not," says Mr. Schraeder, "'cause that doesn't help their argument."

After she finishes reading their letter, Ms. McRae says, "I wrote: 'deny.'"

The group laughs. The parents have done themselves no favors here: Their letter comes off as rude, they haven't given the aid office any basis on which to make an adjustment, and they based their reasoning on bad information.

"The tone of the letter read more like a negotiation, not an appeal," Ms. Richmond says.

"And I think we've offered them actually a good offer," Mr. Schraeder adds.

While some families' appeals make the committee members roll their eyes, they occasionally reach out to families who haven't appealed at all to let them know they have that opportunity. Ms. Richmond brings up one student who has not submitted an appeal toward the end of the meeting. The student is a merit-scholarship recipient from a "tweener" family, and her father is an alcoholic.

The mother doesn't plan to ask for more money, Ms. Richmond says, because she thinks Occidental has done all it can for her. Ms. McRae looks over the student's file and sees that there are changes she could make. She says she'll call the mother and let her know the college might be able to do more.

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