Financial aid administrators continue to anticipate increases in professional judgment (PJ) requests into the 2021-22 award year, with 64% expecting increases as compared to the 2020-21 award year.
A new survey from NASFAA, released today, demonstrates that schools, since the onset of the pandemic, continue to see increases in PJ requests, with 56% of respondents reporting an increase in requests over the same time frame of the previous calendar year, 27% reporting about the same number of requests for the same time frame over the two years, and only 6% reporting a decrease in the number of requests from the prior year.
These figures are nearly identical (within 3%) to the responses received in NASFAA’s September 2020 survey, suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact families’ ability to pay for college.
"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.”
In the early days of the pandemic, NASFAA conducted a pair of PJ surveys in June and September of 2020 to provide insights into the ways financial aid offices were preparing for spikes in PJ volume, as a means of aiding NASFAA’s advocacy efforts surrounding PJ.
This latest survey by NASFAA was administered to 2,653 primary contacts on May 10, 2021 and collected responses through May 19, 2021. NASFAA received 224 completed responses resulting in a 9% response rate.
In these latest findings, NASFAA also sought to garner input from how schools are complying with PJ outreach requirements outlined in the American Rescue Plan Act.
The latest guidance from the Department of Education (ED) required institutions to use a “portion” of their Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) grants to conduct direct outreach to financial aid applicants about their opportunity to make PJ requests. In order to comply with that guidance, 67% of all survey respondents said they would provide email notifications to students, and 35% said they would provide direct communication with students via an institutional student portal. A number of respondents — 39% — are also waiting for more guidance from ED before determining how they will conduct their direct outreach.
Many NASFAA members have indicated that they had ramped up their PJ outreach efforts prior to the American Rescue Plan’s passage. As such, questions have come up, such as whether institutions can simply document those activities without attributing a cost associated with those activities, or how to document spending on an activity without an associated cost. Members are reminded that, although there is no amount or percentage specified, they must spend something on their PJ outreach activities. HEERF III dollars can be spent on institutional costs dating back to March 13, 2020, so even previously-enacted PJ outreach activities could be assigned a cost out of HEERF III funds. As for outreach activities without an associated cost, members are encouraged to work with their finance and accounting staff to identify indirect costs, such as staff time and other resources that went into outreach efforts.
Additionally, the new survey, coupled with the previous reports, shows a steady increase over the course of the three surveys in the number of respondents who report that they have begun training non-financial aid staff to recognize when they should refer a student to the financial aid office for PJ, with 17% of May 2021 responding institutions doing this now, compared with 12% of September 2020 responding institutions and 7% of June 2020 responding institutions.
For more details on HEERF III guidance, check out a special recent episode of "Off The Cuff," where NASFAA hears from a group of financial aid professionals offering insight into their experiences with the latest round of emergency aid.
Publication Date: 6/2/2021