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How Can I Fill the Gap Between Financial Aid and My Ability to Pay?

Mark Kantrowitz

July 04, 2011

I’m a soon-to-be college freshman. My tuition is close to $40,000 but financial aid only covers $19,000. My mother is a single parent making only $18,000 a year and I was wondering if there are any other options I can get besides loans that financial aid can help me with. — D.V.

Something doesn’t add up. The amount of financial aid you are receiving seems very low given your family’s financial situation. The gap of $20,000 per year is clearly unreasonable given that it exceeds your mother’s income. There are two possible explanations. One is that there is a significant error, either in the information submitted on the financial aid application forms or in the amount of financial aid provided to you. The other possibility is that the college practices gapping.

Since you are receiving a full Pell Grant, corresponding to a zero expected family contribution (EFC), it is unlikely that there is an error on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). But it is possible that there are errors or differences in the assessments from other financial aid application forms. About 250 mostly non-profit colleges use the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form for awarding their own financial aid funds. It is possible that the PROFILE form yielded a significantly different EFC, affecting the amount of grant money from the college. Some of the most common reasons for a big difference in treatment under the federal and institutional need analysis formulas include differences in the consideration of certain assets (e.g., the family’s home or a small family-owned business), differences in the consideration of paper losses (e.g., depreciation, net operating loss carry-forwards, business/farm losses, capital losses) and differences in the consideration of the finances of the non-custodial parent in divorce cases.

Gapping occurs when the college fails to meet the full demonstrated financial need of the student, leaving the student with unmet need (also called a gap). Some colleges, especially for-profit colleges and small tuition-bound non-profit colleges, may routinely leave some of their students with gaps of up to $5,000 to $10,000. But a $20,000 gap seems unusually high.

Either way, you should call the college’s financial aid office to ask for a review of your financial situation and for an increase in your financial aid package. Point out that the gap between the cost of attendance and the financial aid package is more than your mother earns in a year. The financial aid administrator will identify the error, if any, and adjust the financial aid package accordingly, or explain why the college is leaving you with such a big gap.

If the college is making an unreasonable assumption in the awarding of their own funds, explain to them why the assumption is unreasonable. For example, a business might have a high asset value because of capital equipment, facilities or inventory necessary to run the business. A farm may have a lot of land, but the land is necessary to grow crops and raise livestock. The non-custodial parent may be incapable of contributing to college costs (e.g., dead, whereabouts unknown, incarcerated or institutionalized) or there may be evidence that the non-custodial parent is unlikely to cooperate (e.g., a failure to pay child support for many years or a court has issued a protection from abuse order or restraining order against the parent).

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