Higher Ed Equity: Working to Eliminate Bias in Aid Administration

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

In kicking off the NASFAA 2021 Virtual Conference, a group of financial aid professionals held a discussion Monday centering around the issue of equity and efforts to remove bias from the aid application process.

The discussion participants shared perspectives meant to spur conversation within financial aid offices to address implicit bias and highlight how policy stakeholders can look to reform the system to provide disadvantaged students with the tools needed to achieve their higher education goals, without being truncated by paperwork or other bureaucratic obstacles.

Devon Graves, assistant professor in the College of Education, Kinesiology, and Social Work at California State University, Stanislaus, has used his professional experiences to highlight the inequities within the financial aid process and how those structures can bring harm to students.

He specifically used a case study of a California community college to demonstrate how the practice of verification impacted differing demographics, and showed how the process had disproportionately targeted female students as well as those from marginalized backgrounds.

Outside of the data analysis Graves conducted interviews with students from the California community college who were selected for verification. Those students expressed confusion around the process, a lack of institutional support — since they no longer had access to their high school guidance counselors — and found the process to be lengthy, making it difficult to access essential resources, like books or transportation, needed for their programs.

Graves said that going forward it is important for institutions to be intentional about studying their data so that schools can better understand how given demographics are experiencing the financial aid system.

“This is really important at the institutional campus level because you have the data,” Graves said. “It's on us to take the initiative to study our data, find out who is experiencing the most inequities, find out why and find a way to eliminate those inequities. It is so important that we continue to challenge ourselves to improve that experience so that our students, hopefully, have a better experience.”

In the discussion Rachelle Feldman, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, highlighted how assumptions impact a student’s experience with accessing aid and particular challenges in completing the FAFSA application.

“It always strikes me how inherent in the FAFSA is the assumption that people live essentially in two-parent, cisgendered, traditional households, and anything other than that is quite the exception,” Feldman said. “In some cases it's very difficult for a student who lives in a nontraditional household, or with a grandparent, or with a guardian who's not their official guardian, to even figure out how to fill out the form in the first place and they may not finish.”

By ignoring many student family realities, the system inadvertently imposes additional burdens on students trying to access higher education.

The conversation also previewed NASFAA’s Implicit Bias Toolkit and how the working group developed its best practices. That toolkit will be published this summer. For more details, you can register for an upcoming webinar, Recognizing and Eliminating Bias in Aid Office Policies and Procedures, scheduled for November 17.

When addressing issues stemming from equity in higher education it is also important for institutions to aim to foster a sense of belonging, especially for students experiencing doubt in their pursuit of postsecondary education.

Helen Faith, director of student financial aid at University of Wisconsin-Madison, having worked in a community college setting for nearly a decade, said that institutional processes can serve as a barrier to students unfamiliar with the higher education system and that unclear communication can serve as a discouragement for students.

“I definitely work with students who felt like they didn't belong in college to begin with and every stumbling block placed in their path they saw as a sign that they didn't belong,” Faith said. “They were really discouraged and frightened by a lot of our processes so I think it's very important that we be cognizant of how intimidating these processes can be for especially our most disadvantaged students, and do everything that we can to to be as friendly and as encouraging and as positive as we can be in our communications.”

We encourage you to check out the conference schedule, join the conversation on social media this week using #NASFAA2021, listen to our specially curated NASFAA 2021 Playlist for some fun tunes to get your week off to a great start, and learn more about each of our 2021 exhibitors in their interactive, virtual exhibit booths.


Publication Date: 6/22/2021

Kim M | 6/22/2021 1:2:56 PM

Great discussion. This topic is long overdue. Thank you Devon Graves for pointing out the disparities. The lower the income plus the ethnicity plus the belief such as "there's no way a foster youth can live on zero income," generated more verification as well as justification for being poor. Thanks again. Please continue this dialog.

David S | 6/22/2021 9:35:03 AM

Excellent session, and I'm glad it was well attended. Thank you to all the presenters, and I'm looking forward to using the toolkit the Implicit Bias task force has been working on.

Rebecca S | 6/22/2021 9:33:38 AM

This session was excellent.

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