NASFAA Survey: Pandemic Continues to Fuel Financial Aid Appeals

More than one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, families and students still struggle to afford college.

Contact: Erin Powers
Director of Marketing & Communications 
(202) 785-6959 
[email protected]

WASHINGTON, DC, June 2, 2021 — Although the worst of the coronavirus pandemic appears to have passed as the country begins to reopen, the financial impact is more enduring. Financial aid offices around the country continue to see a high number of financial aid appeals from students and families who are struggling to pay for college, according to a new survey from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).

The survey, distributed to a subset of NASFAA's membership in May 2021, showed the percentage of institutions reporting an increase in financial aid appeals — known as professional judgment requests — was nearly identical to the responses received in a September 2020 survey on the same topic, signaling that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact families' ability to pay for college. 

At the same time, financial aid offices are doing more to publicize the availability of these appeals to students and families, with 39% saying they have begun reaching out proactively to students to inform them about the process, up from 23% and 22% in NASFAA's September and June 2020 surveys, respectively.

The analysis of a student's financial need for federal financial aid is based on a standardized assessment, but on a case-by-case basis financial aid administrators have the authority to make a professional judgment 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.

Respondents for the May 2021 survey consisted of individuals from financial aid offices at 224 public, private, community college, and proprietary institutions of higher education across the country. The survey revealed: 

  • 56% of respondents saw a somewhat or great increase in requests for professional judgment for the 14 months spanning March 1, 2020 and May 10, 2021 as compared to the 14 months spanning March 1 2019 and May 10, 2020. 
  • 64% of respondents said they anticipate professional judgment requests will somewhat or greatly increase for the coming award year.
  • 38% of respondents said they are using estimated income of zero in place of base year income in the estimated family contribution calculation for a family member based on documentation of receipt of unemployment benefits, as a result of guidance from the Department of Education released in January 2021.
  • 17% of responding institutions said their office has begun training non-financial aid staff to recognize when they should refer a student to the financial aid office, compared with 12% in September 2020, and 7% in June 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."

NASFAA policy experts are available to speak more about the increase in professional judgment requests at colleges and universities. To set up an interview, please email NASFAA Director of Marketing and Communications Erin Powers or call (202) 785-6959.

About the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators 

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) provides professional development for financial aid administrators; advocates for public policies that increase student access and success; serves as a forum on student financial aid issues; and is committed to diversity throughout all activities. NASFAA's membership includes 22,000 student financial assistance professionals at approximately 3,000 colleges, universities, and career schools across the country. NASFAA member institutions serve nine out of every 10 undergraduates in the U.S.

Publication Date: 6/2/2021

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