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College and Wharton sophomore Freddy Chang was originally told he was ineligible for financial aid, but later said he received almost $50,000 after writing to Penn's Student Registration and Financial Services.

Credit: Lizzy Machielse

When College and Wharton sophomore Freddy Chang learned that he had been accepted early decision to Penn, he was thrilled — until a few days later, he received a letter informing him that he was ineligible for financial aid.

For Chang, this was crushing — without a financial aid package, it was unlikely that he would be able to attend Penn. After speaking with family and friends, he decided to send a letter to Penn’s Student Registration and Financial Services asking it to reevaluate his aid package. It worked. The office soon offered him a new package of almost $50,000, he said.

“I was actually very surprised that this had even happened, because Penn, especially when they were marketing admissions and whatnot, were saying, even in their highest bracket of income, which is like $220,000 a year plus, their median aid given was like $20,000,” Chang said. “So I thought, I don’t know if there’s a mistake, because my family’s definitely not making over $220,000 a year.”

According to SRFS statistics for the Class of 2019, 31 percent of students with household incomes of $220,000 or greater were offered financial aid, with a median package of $15,935. Rates were even higher for lower income brackets, with 84 percent of students in the $190,000 to $220,000 being offered financial aid.

Chang had already received a substantial aid offer from Babson College, but he still hoped to attend Penn. So he sent SRFS a letter elaborating on his financial situation, asking it to look at his finances again to see if he might be eligible for more aid.

“On paper, we might have seemed more well-off, but realistically ... [the recession] put us in a tough financial situation where we were essentially getting no income at all,” Chang said. Chang was also attending private school at the time, which may have given the impression that his family was sufficiently well-off, even though he was receiving financial aid for his tuition.

“I wrote an appeal letter basically saying, first of all thank you for accepting me to UPenn ... but the nonexistent financial [aid] package you gave me would prevent me from being able to thrive at Penn,” he said. “I went into my family’s specific financial situation ... and I sort of leveraged the other [aid] packages that I had.”

The SRFS website mentions that re-evaluations are possible in a section designed for parents, which asks families to notify their office about any change in financial status such as those caused by unemployment or a reduction in income. But as Chang’s experience shows, a change in income isn’t always necessary for a better aid package — sometimes, just a bit of persuasion and a request to look again at your original situation can do just as well.

Chang received advice from NextGenVest, a startup that guides students through the financial aid process. He currently works as an advisor with the organization, talking other students through the financial aid process.

“It was just really baffling to me that they originally told me that my family was completely ineligible for aid, but then after just asking, they gave me $49,000,” he said. “I think there’s just this huge information gap about if you can do this ... I think there’s so much advantage to be had from simply asking a question. The thing with appealing financial aid is that you can’t get a worse package if you ask, [it] can only go up after asking.”