Financial aid appeals remain high due to pandemic, NAFSAA survey shows

Colleges and universities are boosting outreach efforts, leaning on Department of Education guidance on incomes for professional judgment requests.
By: | June 2, 2021
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Despite the promise of widespread vaccination and the further reopening of businesses across the U.S., students and families largely are not in better financial positions than they were last fall.

According to a new report from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), appeals for financial aid to higher education institutions this year remain largely unchanged from their past survey done in September 2020.

“The worst of the pandemic may be behind us, but students and families will continue to feel the financial impact for months and possibly years to come,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger. “Students and parents whose financial circumstances have changed should reach out to their financial aid office for help. Often, the steps needed to seek a financial aid adjustment due to changing family circumstances are provided directly on the institution’s website or student portal.”

Nearly 40% of college and university offices have increased their efforts in helping get professional judgment information to students and families in 2021, a jump of nearly 17 percentage points from last June. Around 17% of institutions are training staff outside of financial offices on how to refer cases to financial aid.

The survey done last month of 224 officers at public, private, community college, and proprietary institutions shows that professional judgment requests have not waned. In fact, only 6% of those polled said they saw a decrease in the number of those financial aid asks.

By comparison, 56% of institutional leaders say they have seen “a somewhat or great increase in requests” year-over-year. Because of that, nearly two-thirds expect that those asks will be fulfilled or increased for the upcoming year.

Inside the numbers

More than two-thirds of institutions are heeding the advice of the Department of Education in looking at income earned and unemployment as variables for determining aid. More than a third say they have replaced base year income with incomes of zero for families who have lost jobs. A NAFSAA survey done last September, prior to the ED guidance, showed that 80% of offices were willing to make that adjustment if it came to fruition, so institutions are in fact following through on that promise.

Though more than half of all colleges and universities have provided information on their websites and through communications on their professional judgment policies and procedures, 13% started to after the pandemic struck and another 21% said they are considering it. Very few institutions cross-link financial aid web resources to other campus office webpages, but 35% are now open to doing so.

While institutions have been receptive when it comes to using the ED’s guidance, they are wary of offering refunds for expenses paid or giving discounts for tuition, room, board and books to offset professional judgment requests. In fact, more than 80% said they would not consider either.

In making equitable determinations for requests, the majority of respondents say they do train staff to be wary of bias in decision-making. A third say they mandate that committees make those judgments, not individuals. Only a little more than a quarter regularly review policies for bias, but another 28% are considering it in the future.

When asked how their offices were complying with spending “a portion of HEERF III funds to conduct direct outreach to financial aid applicants about their opportunity to request PJ for special circumstances like unemployment”, 67% said they conducted outreach by email, while 35% said they were communicating directly through student portals. Only 17% said they were reaching out via standard mail.