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Understanding your financial aid decisions


It’s admission decision season, which means many students are left asking questions about the packages they received. Some of the most popular questions center around financial aid, and we’re breaking down the most common situations that occur with financial aid packages, and what you can do if you didn’t get the package you need. 

Congratulations! You qualify for financial aid.

Financial aid is considered a grant based on your family’s financial ability to contribute to your boarding school or day school education, which means you usually don’t have to pay back any monies awarded to you. You do have to reapply for financial aid every year, which allows the school to continue to provide an appropriate financial aid package based on your family’s annual finances. Should your family’s ability to contribute to your educational costs change in a given year, your financial aid award will likely also change to reflect it.

If you received a financial aid package that covers your family’s full demonstrated financial need, congratulations. Your aid will be used to offset the cost of attending the school, and could range from a full scholarship to a small scholarship, depending on what your parents’ demonstrated financial need was determined to be through the Parent Financial Statement (PFS) that you submitted during the application process.

Now, it’s time to compare packages from different schools that you’ve applied to, and figure out which plan best meets your needs. You need to look at not just the overall award and tuition, but also take into consideration other costs you might incur if you choose to attend. These fees might include books, tutoring, participation in special programs, or fees to participate in arts or sports programs that require a significant financial investment. Some music programs require students to own their own instruments, and Model UN students may need to plan to cover their travel expenses to conferences. Students may also find themselves facing additional fees for sports like hockey or equestrian programs, which often require additional fees to cover equipment and travel.

You should also consider your personal travel expenses. While a school on the other side of the country may have offered you $5,000 more in financial aid than the school that’s an hour away, you might rack up more than that in airfare to get to and from school throughout the school year. Remember, that you don’t just need to travel to school in the fall and home in the spring. There are several breaks throughout the year, and airfare or train fare can quickly add up. Also consider if you’ll need to ship your belongings to the school and ask if the school provides storage options during the summer so that you don’t have to ship everything back home again after every year.

⇒ Read more: Accepted at Boarding School? Here are your next steps!

You qualified for aid, but not as much as you expected.

You may find yourself in a situation where you received a financial aid package, but it wasn’t the amount you expected to receive. Unfortunately, not every family will receive a financial aid package that meets 100% of the demonstrated family need. Your family may feel as though they can only contribute $5,000 towards your private school education, but through the complex calculations that occur as part of the PFS application, the School and Student Services (SSS) might have a different idea of what qualifies you to receive a higher aid package.

You can always reach out to the school and request a meeting to review the PFS and discuss options. Bring your financial records that might suggest a financial hardship that isn’t accounted for in your tax records, and see if the school will take that into consideration. Yes, that’s right. You can appeal to the school if your aid package doesn’t meet your needs. While your appeal isn’t guaranteed to be accepted, it’s important that families know it’s possible to try.

Schools have the right to adjust the financial aid package suggestions that are made by the PFS. This could be done for a number of reasons, the most common of which is receiving information that wasn’t included on the original application. Since many PFS forms are submitted in the fall or early winter, a family’s financial situation has the potential to change by the time aid packages are awarded in late winter. Often, additional financial information is provided to schools that can impact a financial aid in a number of ways, which could result in increases or decreases in the award made by the school.

Schools often offer tuition payment plans, which means you can spread your payments out over the course of the academic year, which can make it easier for you to cover the costs if your aid package doesn’t show a huge discrepancy between what you’re offered and what you can actually afford to pay.

It’s important to remember that financial aid is a limited amount of money that every school has to offer students. Schools build their overall aid pool by taking into account the financial aid awards that were allocated to students who will be graduating at the end of the year, and will add those funds back into the total amount of aid that is available. They also look at any aid packages that have been awarded to students who have told the school they aren’t returning in the fall, and reallocate those funds back into the general pool. This total amount of aid is used to provide financial support for both new and returning families, and returning families are typically given first priority provided that students are in good academic and social standing at the school. Returning students who need financial aid will complete the same application process as new students, so that a school knows how much aid a family will require to finance the student’s education.

Your financial aid award might also change based on the amount of financial aid that is available. If you have applied after the deadline or there is an extreme number of applications for aid, schools may need to work to stretch their dollars, which means families may be asked to pay a bit more than they expected. Again, you can appeal the decision, but you might not get an amended package. It’s important to know what your family can realistically afford to pay. While it may be disappointing, you may need to wait another year and apply again. Talk to the financial aid office at your school to see what they recommend would be best for you.

⇒ Read more: Wondering how to get financial aid? Check this out.

You qualified for aid, but were waitlisted.

You may be aware that students are sometimes waitlisted for acceptance when they apply to boarding schools or college, but did you also know this is a possibility with financial aid? It is, and is more common than you think. As more and more families apply for financial aid, schools need to be strategic in how they award financial aid. As I mentioned earlier, schools use their entire financial aid budgets to provide assistance to both new and returning families. That means, they will build out the awards for returning families first, then move on to new families.

Schools also expect that not every student who is offered admission and financial aid will accept the package. This is true for both new and returning students, and it means that waitlisting families gives the school a chance to go back to qualified applicants and potentially still offer them support. Returning students and the first round of accepted students typically have a month to respond to financial aid awards and accept them, appeal them, or pass on them. As students decide what they are doing in the coming year and let the schools know, any unclaimed financial awards are added back into the pool and can then be reallocated to those on the waiting list. A little patience and communication with the school can result in you receiving an award to help fund your education.

Something that not everyone knows is that if as a new student, you accept an award that doesn’t fully meet your needs, it doesn’t mean that’s the award you’ll be stuck with your entire school career. As a returning student the following year, you get a higher priority than new students, which means your demonstrated financial need is more likely to be met.

You didn’t receive financial aid.

Unfortunately, some families will find themselves in a situation where they didn’t receive a financial aid package. The most common reason is that your family simply didn’t qualify for financial aid. While you may feel as though you cannot afford the full cost of tuition, there is something in your finances that tells SSS and the school otherwise. It’s important to make sure that you understand what your PFS says, and why you were denied any financial aid awards. If you feel there was a mistake, reach out to the financial aid office and schedule a meeting to review your paperwork.

Remember, financial aid practices vary from school to school, and not all schools are considered “need-blind” which basically means that admission and financial aid are mutually exclusive. It’s possible that you may qualify as an applicant to the school, but not as a financial aid applicant. While there are a few select schools that are committed to meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need of their applicants, most schools cannot afford to do this. As such, you may be denied funding even though you are accepted.

You may also find yourself in a situation where you qualified for aid, but didn’t receive an offer. Again, this could be for a variety of reasons, ranging from aid availability to the timing of your application. Some schools may find themselves unable to meet your full demonstrated financial need, especially if you qualify for the full amount of tuition. Schools are typically limited in the number of full need applications they can accommodate, and as such, may deny aid completely rather than offer a package that doesn’t adequately meet your needs.

Families can appeal financial aid decisions, but shouldn’t get their hopes up that large aid packages will suddenly be made available, especially if you weren’t placed on a financial aid waiting list. While disappointing, it’s always possible to request that your admission decision is deferred so that you can reapply for aid again the following year, but consult with the admission office to make sure there’s a realistic chance that you’ll find yourself in a different situation the following year if you reapply.

There’s always the chance that you were denied financial aid because your application was incomplete, too. If you didn’t submit your most recent taxes or didn’t complete the full application, you could find yourself in a situation where you just aren’t offered aid. This is a competitive market, and schools are going to work with the families who complete their applications first. It’s important to follow up on your application before the deadlines provided and make sure that yours is complete.

⇒ Read more: How to afford boarding school.

Now what? I still need money.

Not every family is willing to accept the financial aid decision presented to them initially, and they may be looking for alternative ways to fund a private school education. Assuming that you’ve exhausted your resources within the school itself, there are some options from external sources that might allow you to make ends meet so a private school education is possible.

Merit Awards

Chances are that you were considered for merit awards at the school where you applied, but ask to be sure. If deadlines have passed this year, ask if returning students are eligible to apply the following year. Merit awards are typically based on academic performance. These are grants or scholarships that are provided to students to honor their achievements. Like financial aid, these awards typically do not have to be paid back to the institution that awarded them. However, some merit awards do come with strings. For example, the student may be required to maintain a specific GPA throughout the year in order to continue to qualify to receive the award. If your GPA falls below the cut off, you risk losing your award. If you do some research, you may even find institutions outside of the school offer merit awards that you can apply for to help offset the cost of tuition


Scholarships can be based on any number of qualifiers, ranging from academic performance, athletic prowess, and artistic talents to geographic location, cultural or ethnic background, or career aspirations. The possibilities are endless. Scholarships are also typically considered gifts that do not have to be paid back to the institution granting them. Similar to merit awards, they may also carry strings with them and requirements that need to be met. There could be GPA requirements, athletic obligations to uphold, or even portfolio work that needs to completed as part of arts classes. Again, check with the school you applied to and see if you were considered for any scholarships that were available. If not, do some research to find scholarship opportunities through your town, religious groups, community organizations, cultural groups, or major corporations.


Unlike financial aid, merit awards, and scholarships, loans are not gifts and do require the recipient to pay them back over a given period of time, typically with interest. These typically don’t have the same kind of qualification requirements as the other options, other than decent credit and an ability to pay them back. Loans can be helpful, but can also add up over time, especially if you’re planning to take out loans to help pay for your undergraduate studies or graduate studies. Make sure that whatever you borrow for loans, that you borrow from a reputable source, and never borrow more than you and your family can realistically pay back.  

There are many financial institutions that provide loans to families to fund K12 school experiences, including Sallie Mae. Many of these loans are only available to US residents, but they can provide an affordable rate that makes it possible for you to attend the school of your dreams. If your loan allows you to pay a lump sum to the school, you may even find that you qualify for a discount by paying the full amount before a particular date. That discount can help you borrow less and pay down your loans faster.

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Stacy Jagodowski

Written by Stacy Jagodowski

Ms. Jago joined the Cheshire Academy community in August 2013 as the director of strategic marketing and communications. Prior to coming to Cheshire Academy, she spent six years working in communications offices at both colleges and private school, as well as five years in admission at both boarding schools and day schools.

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