Financial aid appeals in a pandemic

Recent research shows growth in professional judgment requests that lead to some students getting awarded more aid—but financial aid offices may need to do more to ensure awareness of the process and unbiased decision-making.
By: | October 15, 2020

The pandemic and resulting recession have made college less accessible to many students, and household financial situations at the time of applying for federal financial aid were often significantly more stable than compared to when this academic year started. But students can ask their institutions to take another look at what financial aid they are awarded in the hopes of being offered more.

And not surprisingly, colleges and universities are seeing notable increases in these professional judgement (PJ) requests, with 59% of respondents to a National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) survey reporting a somewhat or great increase in such requests (known as financial aid appeals to the general public) received between March 1, 2020 and September 21, 2020, compared to the same period last year. The greatest increases in requests among the 212 survey respondents were associated with students at public four-year institutions and students at larger schools.

“If you have a change in circumstance, there is this option for you,” says Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations for NASFAA, of what students can do to try to get more federal aid. The application period for the FAFSA form opened last October 1, she adds, at which time applicants would be using prior-prior year income when filling out it out.

A separate survey of over 1,000 college students conducted by CollegeFinance.com and Quatromoney found that 78% percent of students did not appeal their first financial aid award letter. Of those who did appeal, about 6% were awarded additional aid, with an average of $3,497 more.

Coval suggests that the large percentage of students not appealing may be because so many people are switching to more affordable community colleges, may be choosing a different institution closer to home, or may be putting off school altogether right now. “This is a period of time that is still mixed in with emergency funds provided by the federal government,” she adds. “I might be stretching with this reason, but some students may have gotten additional funds through that, maybe in the spring, that are helping with school.”

Financial aid office actions

Although the FAFSA itself notes that students may appeal for more aid, a greater number of campus financial aid offices are also reminding students of the option.

Prior to COVID, 23% of NASFAA survey respondents said they had already proactively reached out to students about the professional judgment process and how it can help make school more affordable. As of September, a total of 46% of respondents were being proactive about this outreach, with an additional 15% considering doing so.

Reasons for financial aid appeals

According to a CollegeFinance.com and Quatromoney survey of more than 1,000 college students about how COVID had affected their ability to pay for college, the reasons for making an appeal for more financial aid include:

• Job loss/reduced income: 44%

• Learning about aid other students at the college received: 19%

• Finding out about the aid offered at another college: 19%

• Increase of expenses: 10%

• Loss of savings 7%

NASFAA’s code of conduct doesn’t specifically address PJ, but it does have a very strong student focus, says Coval.

While PJ requests only cover federal financial aid, she adds, schools with significant institutional aid funds may be able to cover additional costs for students who are maxed out with federal grants and loans by offering emergency financial aid.

So in some cases additional awards are in fact at the discretion of the institution. Staff training on implicit/unconscious bias as it applies to PJ decisions is one way institutions can help ensure the appeals process is fair. The September survey found that 68% of respondents’ schools were offering such training before COVID, and an additional 15% reported they have either begun doing so since COVID emerged or are considering doing so. In other words, more than 8 in 10 are either currently doing or considering doing implicit bias training related to appeals decisions.

Other changes brought on by the pandemic included preparing for the anticipated increase of appeals. Since COVID emerged, more than one-quarter of respondents reported increasing the frequency of meetings for the financial aid appeal committee and more than one-third reported expanding the types of circumstances being considered in PJs.

Financial aid administrators are required to carefully document PJ requests and decisions for audits and program reviews—but making too many award changes can trigger a program review, Coval says. At the federal level, there has been recognition that the pandemic is the reason for more appeals, however, so the program reviews may ease.

In 2009, following the Great Recession, financial aid administrators were granted the authority to zero out income and/or unemployment benefits from a student’s expected family contribution calculation, but Congress and the Department of Education have yet to issue guidance explicitly permitting this treatment for those impacted by the pandemic. According to the survey, 80% of respondents said their office would take these steps if Congress or the Department allowed it.

Overall, Coval says, it’s clear that financial aid administrators anticipated the increase in PJ requests and want to help students in any way they can. “They don’t want COVID to be a reason students stop continuing their education.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.