Recognizing that many college students and their families are grappling with pandemic-related job and income loss, college counselors and financial aid offices are intensifying outreach to make sure students understand their aid options.
Three in four college presidents say their institution anticipates spending more on financial aid this year as families face greater strain, according to a September survey from the American Council on Education. But timely FAFSA completion and ongoing communication will be critical to connect students with needed resources, administrators note.
Students who submit the FAFSA early will have the best chance of securing first-come, first-served state grants, which may be more limited than ever amid strained budgets, The Washington Post reports. Families also may need extra time to appeal their financial aid packages if their financial circumstances have shifted, as the FAFSA relies on tax data from two years prior.
Colleges report increase in professional judgment requests
Amid COVID-19, “we’re seeing many individuals whose current financial situations look nothing like what will be displayed on the FAFSA,” Brad Barnett, financial aid director at James Madison University in Virginia told Education Dive.
New survey results from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) indicate that colleges across the nation are seeing an influx of financial aid appeals from students and families facing pandemic-related economic hardships. Fifty-nine percent of 212 financial aid offices surveyed by NASFAA said that, between March 1 and September 21, they saw an increase in requests for aid adjustments, compared with the year prior—an increase since June, when 47 percent of respondents reported an uptick.
Institutions typically determine aid packages using a standardized assessment, but administrators have the authority to use professional judgement to override a student’s dependency status, adjust elements used to calculate the student’s expected family contribution, or revise the cost of attendance to more accurately reflect costs.
“In most years, in most economic environments, for most students, [the FAFSA’s] two-year look back is an accurate enough reflection of your financial status, for the purpose of financial aid,” Julie Peller, executive director of the nonprofit Higher Learning Advocates, told The Hechinger Report. But with recent disruption “that is unlikely to be the case right now and probably why we’re seeing this uptick for requests.”
Flexibility, awareness, communication all key
According to NASFAA, about half of surveyed colleges and universities are proactively educating students about the professional judgment process, and 15 percent are considering doing so. The Department of Education also has added language to its financial aid website encouraging students to notify their institution if their FAFSA does not reflect their current financial situation.
College financial aid offices should seize opportunities to tell families about the financial aid appeals process, Brenda Hicks, director of financial aid at Southwestern College in Kansas, told Education Dive. “This process, which has always been in statute, is one of the simplest and best ways to open the door to a conversation about a student’s financial stress,” she said, adding that those conversations “can ultimately make the difference between a student who has no idea how to cope with an overwhelming financial struggle and one who has a plan to persist and thrive.”
To further improve outreach, Hicks encourages financial aid offices to coordinate closely with the bursar and student accounts professionals and partner with “student influencers”—for instance, coaches, advisors, and student life professionals—to help reach students who would benefit from additional aid but may not proactively contact the financial aid office. Social media also is a valuable tool, says David Page, vice president of enrollment management at Dillard University, which is sharing weekly scholarship information via Twitter to complement email communications.
Counselors working to boost FAFSA completion
To maintain a strong college pipeline, college access advocates also are focused on ensuring high school seniors complete the FAFSA. Recent data have shown a decline in FAFSA filings among low-income students, sparking concern about educational equity.
Unable to host in-person FAFSA nights or rely on face-to-face counseling, schools and nonprofits are finding alternative approaches. Some are leading FAFSA information sessions in Wifi-equipped parking lots, while others are trying “drive-through” formats. Online video tutorials and Zoom sessions also have been popular, sometimes garnering greater attendance than past years’ in-person events.