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Taking the guesswork out of financial aid appeals

Taking the guesswork out of financial aid appeals
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This week, the Senate HELP committee will hold a hearing focused on how colleges and universities can reopen safely. While public health is an essential component to this conversation, the program reflects a glaring omission. In this economic crisis, how will students be able to afford to attend the schools when they reopen? And, if they don’t return, how many institutions will close due to lack of funds

While the need for robust financial investment in higher education is critical, substantial aid remains available to support students during this economic crisis. The Department of Education hasn’t told them it exists. 

Today, students who encounter financial difficulty can “appeal” their financial aid packages to ask for additional funds. Students can request changes to their aid packages to account for childcare expenses and costs associated with a disability. Yet, the terms “financial aid appeal,” “dependent care allowance,” “disability allowance,” do not even appear in the glossary of the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid website, and few schools proactively inform students about these options. Consequently, few college students know that such requests are a normal, federally-regulated part of the college financial aid process.

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The need for this information is clear: on April 15, the date when recorded COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. topped 30,000, and just two weeks after many residential colleges sent home their students, we launched a free tool to help prospective and current college students learn about the appeals process and request adjustments to their financial packages. 

The yawning guidance gap around financial aid appeals offers Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosFederal student loan payment suspension extended another month DeVos knocks free college push as 'socialist takeover of higher education' Anti-bullying scholarship program offers 'Hope' for students — and school choice MORE an extraordinary (and inexpensive) opportunity to assist students encountering financial distress during COVID-19. 

First, Secretary DeVos must add information about financial aid appeals to StudentAid.gov, a Department of Education website visited by millions of students annually. Students that encounter financial difficulty can “appeal” their financial aid packages to ask for additional funds or request changes to reflect caregiving responsibilities or disability-related costs. Some information has been added to the FAFSA’s COVID-19 page, but it is far from exhaustive— and it still isn’t included in the critical “How Financial Aid Works” sections of the website.

Second, the secretary must direct the Office of Federal Student Aid to notify the 11+ million students who have recently filed the FAFSA about the existence of the appeals process — and the CARES grant aid available at many institutions. Admirably, teams at Harper College have already proactively awarded their CARES dollars and students of the appeals process, and teams at Montgomery College and Everett Community College have implemented quick turnarounds on emergency aid requests.

Not all institutions have been this responsive to the needs of their students — and not all students are easily reached during this pandemic. Federal Student Aid can contact millions of students directly, and credibly, with information about how to ask for additional financial support. 

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Lastly, the secretary should direct the Office of Federal Student Aid to issue a “Dear Colleague Letter” about financial aid appeals during COVID-19. College staff are working around the clock already to support their students and they deserve to know that the Department of Education stands behind them — and won’t pursue “gotcha” style look-backs when it is time for annual program reviews. The number of valid appeals will be sky-high during 2020-2021 and 2021-2022; increased volume alone should not trigger scrutiny.  

The costs of these three actions are modest, but the impact for students, their families and the institutions that serve them, could be characterized as life-saving. Prior to COVID-19, Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community & Justice surveyed nearly 167,000 students at 227 institutions and found 39 percent of participants had been food insecure in the prior 30 days; the related study we funded focused on college students with children, 53 percent of whom were food insecure in the prior 30 days. Ensuring adequate financial aid access for these dedicated and extraordinary students — and their classmates — will assist families throughout the country struggling with hunger and homelessness.   

We know from exhaustive research that learning outcomes are seriously impaired by hunger and that financial insecurity drives drop-out rates. For our fragile higher education sector, continued enrollment of all students is crucial, so financial assistance to students will trickle up to support institutional survival. Taxpayers benefit too, as students who complete their degrees are significantly more likely to repay their student debt. 

Whether colleges and universities reopen for in-person classes in fall 2020 or not, financial aid policy will be a critical predictor of student success and institutional survival. Let’s have a hearing about this, too. 

Abigail Seldin is the CEO and co-founder of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, which funds and incubates public interest projects to serve the new college majority. A Rhodes Scholar and  Forbes “30 under 30,” she previously founded College Abacus.