Colleges fielding more requests for financial aid adjustments

A new survey of financial aid offices at 293 public, private, proprietary, and community colleges suggests that institutions are seeing an influx of financial aid appeals as students and families grapple with pandemic-related economic hardships. While the survey sample was not statistically representative, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) nonetheless says it provides “useful information about what schools are doing now to provide help to students and families.”

In two recent polls of parents of college-bound students, more than two-thirds indicated that they are increasingly worried about paying for higher education. Moreover, 55 percent of parents of college-bound teenagers told Discover Student Loans in May that they feel their child is not receiving enough in scholarships, up from 14 percent of parents given the same survey in early March. “I’ve never seen students and parents this anxious this time of year,” Eric Greenberg, president of the Greenberg Educational Group consulting firm, told CNBC.

Re-evaluation requests for financial aid packages on the rise

Financial aid officers are seeing the effects of that strain as they field requests from students and families seeking greater assistance covering the cost of college. Institutions typically determine aid packages using a standardized assessment, but at times, “a student or family experiences unusual circumstances that make the standardized approach unsuitable,” NASFAA writes. In those situations, “financial aid administrators have the authority to use professional judgment, on a case-by-case basis, to override the student’s dependency status, adjust data elements used to calculate the student’s expected family contribution, or revise the student’s cost of attendance to more accurately reflect the student’s true financial need and costs.”

According to NASFAA, which conducted its survey of member institutions in early June, almost half of respondents said they received more so-called “professional judgement” requests between March and May 2020, as compared to the same period in 2019. Around one-fifth of respondents reported at least a 50 percent increase in the number of requests. Looking ahead, 90 percent of respondents said they anticipate an increased volume of requests between May and October 2020.

Many institutions ready to assist but not publicizing process

“The pandemic and economic uncertainty that exists today hasn’t been seen in more than two generations,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger. “Students and families should know that schools stand ready to assist them in applying and receiving as much financial aid as possible.”

Yet, the data also suggests that some colleges may be trying to balance student needs against their institutions’ financial constraints. Only 22 percent of respondents said they intended to proactively inform students about the financial aid appeal process. Seventy-eight percent said that their school does not, and does not plan to, “offer discounts on future tuition, room, board, or books to reduce the number of [professional judgement] requests.” 

Related: Dip in FAFSA completion sparks concern >

An obstacle for colleges looking to increase aid?

Meanwhile, recent comments made “quietly” by the U.S. Department of Education suggest that federal officials may “mak[e] it harder for colleges to reconsider—and potentially increase—financial aid for students who have lost jobs or family income in the current economic crisis,” NPR reports. On a May call with higher education stakeholders, education department officials said they had shelved Obama-era guidance that allowed colleges to rapidly reconsider aid packages for students who had lost their jobs. 

The guidance, written in 2009 to address impacts of the Great Recession, “reassured schools that they would not be punished for helping students,” NPR writes, noting that, previously, schools “often avoided these aid reconsiderations” out of fear that they could trigger a costly, labor-intensive investigation from the U.S. Department of Education about use of funds.

While the shift in guidance does not prevent colleges from reconsidering students’ financial aid packages, experts have voiced concerns that it could hamper institutions’ efforts to be responsive at a time when families are struggling. “This has real impact for aid offices on campuses across the country trying to help students work through a very complicated process and get their financial aid,” NASFAA’s Draeger told NPR. 

Noting that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has already received more than 300 professional judgement requests for the fall—”more than we’ve seen this early in years and years”—Rachelle Feldman, the university’s associate provost of scholarships and student aid says she expects even more in July and August. “We have people who—one parent or both parents have been laid off from their jobs. So among our most vulnerable students, we are seeing the most need for reconsideration.”

Feldman says she believes “schools shouldn’t be shy about helping people who need the help” but expects that, with the latest education department change, “some schools, particularly schools where they serve a lot of vulnerable students and maybe are less well-staffed and more nervous about some kind of review or fine, will be very reluctant to do that in the current environment.”

90 Days with Georgetown: Supporting our students

As families face ever-greater financial strain, we know we will have to provide additional scholarships and support to clear students’ path to a Georgetown education and keep our community whole. Learn how our summer-long initiative, 90 Days with Georgetown, is working to support Georgetown students and meet the array of student financial needs intensified by COVID-19.

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