Why equitable financial aid adjustments will be even more important this year

Black and Latinx students have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic’s economic hardships, and could face difficult decisions when it comes to enrolling or staying in college. Further complicating matters, this year’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will be based on tax returns from 2019, potentially creating an aid/income mismatch for families whose financial situations have worsened in recent months. 

A new report from The Education Trust suggests that financial aid officers will play an important role in narrowing that gap to help keep students of color in college, by recalculating students’ aid awards through a process known as “professional judgment.” Professional judgment allows financial aid officers to use their discretion in determining whether a student needs adjustments to their FAFSA due to extenuating circumstances, in order to appeal financial aid decisions or qualify for more aid. Amid COVID-19, colleges across the nation say they are seeing an increase in requests for aid adjustments compared with the year prior.

Related: Colleges fielding more requests for financial aid adjustments >

Ensuring equitable access

However, many students—especially first-generation students—are not aware that this is a possibility and do not know to ask for an adjustment. Jaime Ramirez-Mendoza, a higher education policy analyst for The Education Trust and the lead author of the new report, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that he didn’t know about professional judgment until he was preparing to graduate. In the publication, titled “Using Professional Judgment in Financial Aid to Advance Racial Justice & Equity,” Ramirez-Mendoza and his co-author break down the professional judgment process and how it can be improved to better serve underrepresented students. 

Related: Colleges urge students to share changes in financial status, submit FAFSA >

The report offers several recommendations. Ramirez-Mendoza and Tiffany Jones, senior advisor on higher education policy for the nonprofit group, suggest greater transparency—tracking, reporting, and making public key professional judgment metrics to shed light on racial demographics and equity. They also urge institutions to ensure financial aid officers are attuned to the needs of low-income students and students of color, to reduce students’ paperwork burden as much as possible, and to proactively increase students’ awareness of professional judgment. Student advisory groups, the report notes, could be an effective way to get feedback on needs and communication strategies from a representative group of campus stakeholders. 

Ultimately, the additional aid unlocked by professional judgment “could mean the difference between getting a degree or [being] one of the 36 million students who drop out,” Ramirez-Mendoza told Inside Higher Ed.

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