TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Tess Vigeland: For parents of college-age kids, this is an especially stressful time of year. Gotta figure out how to pay the tuition bill. Most families have already received their financial aid offers. If it’s not enough, they might try to appeal. But there are very specific reasons why a school might consider one.
Pam Fowler is the Director of Financial Aid at University of Michigan, where they’ve seen a nearly 50 percent spike in appeals. Pam, welcome to the show.
Pam Fowler: Thank you.
Vigeland: I wonder if you could explain the value of appealing a financial aid package. Because it seems to me that for most families, they’re throwing everything at you in the first place. So is it worth trying to appeal what you’ve been given?
Fowler: Well, I think we use the word “appeal” differently in the general public than we do in the financial aid office. When we talk about an appeal, we’re speaking of something that has happened to the family that was not reflected on the application — someone has lost a job, someone has downsized, someone who owned their own business had to declare bankruptcy. Those are the kinds of things that we speak of in the aid community, when we talk about appealing a financial aid award.
Vigeland: What information are you looking for as a financial aid officer?
Fowler: We have to, under federal regulation, document whatever changes we make and the reason for making those changes. So if a parent was laid off, then we just need a letter from the employer that says, “This person was laid off effective this date.” And then we also would like to have from that family their unemployment income and how long that unemployment income is expected to last. If the family has medical expenses, then we would like to see those unpaid medical bills. And we always ask the family to give us an estimate of what you think your income will be for a 12-month period.
Vigeland: What kind of information is of no use?
Fowler: If you’re in high debt because you bought a boat or that kind of thing, we’re not interested in that. But we’re looking at the fact that you’re in debt through unusual circumstances or circumstances that were beyond your control at that point in time.
Vigeland: Do you find at all that it’s difficult for the parents to go through an appeal process?
Fowler: I think sometimes it’s difficult for parents to ask, and sometimes it’s difficult for the family to tell the student. I’ve spoken to mothers who’ve said, “I’m getting ready to be evicted, but I don’t want my child to know. Please don’t tell my child.”
Fowler: And so, I have to say to the parent, “You need to tell your student that this is what’s happening.” But I will work with the parent, and I will say, “Well, you give me the documentation that says you’ve lost your home, and I will make the adjustment. But the student’s going to want to know why all of a sudden they’ve got more financial aid.” So you’re only prolonging a conversation you need to have.
Vigeland: What would you say is the most important tip, perhaps, you can give to a family that is really worried they’re not going to be able to send the kid to college?
Fowler: Well, I think the family needs to discuss this. The student needs to discuss this with a financial aid advisor, so that we can explain the options that that student and family have. In some cases, we can do a lot. In some cases, we can’t do very much at all. If you’re very, very high income, there’s very little we can do. We had many upper-income families that took hits last year. We had families who had invested all their money with Madoff, and they lost it all. But there’s also institutional money, and the institution may have set aside additional funds, as we did at the University of Michigan, to help families in this situation. So you need to ask, and you need to put all your cards on the table, and then we can come back to that family and say, “Here are the options.”
Vigeland: Pam Fowler is the director of financial aid, and I presume, a proud Wolverine at the University of Michigan.
Fowler: That’s correct.
Vigeland: Thanks so much for your help.
Fowler: You’re very welcome. Thank you.
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