Last spring, the pandemic stole Maddie Harvey's job on campus in the Dean of Students office. She was finishing up her senior year at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and without the income from her job, she wasn't going to have enough money to pay her upcoming tuition bill.
"It was definitely a very vulnerable situation that I was in," says Harvey, "it's not easy to talk about when you're struggling, especially knowing that so many people were struggling at one time."
Through some Internet research, she discovered a tool called SwiftStudent that would help her craft a financial aid appeal letter to her college. In it, Harvey requested money for her studies, and outlined all her expenses. It was nerve-wracking to air her personal financial situation. And the stakes were high: If she didn't receive more money, she was afraid she wouldn't be able to pay her tuition bill. Finally, she heard a response: Her appeal had worked. Her college offered her about $2,000 more for the semester. She says that money "made a big difference and allowed me to graduate on time."
Millions of students may find themselves in the same boat as Harvey — saddled with unexpected expenses or pandemic related job losses that impact their ability to pay for college. And a student's financial aid package might not be enough to cover their costs because of the way the federal aid system is set up: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA — the form which determines a student's eligibility for financial aid for college — uses tax data from 2019. Unfortunately, the world looked very different back then, pre-pandemic.
It's a concern that's come up with many of the high school students that Danny Tejada, a college advisor at a private school in St. Louis, works with.
But, Tejada says, there's hope for students and families worried the FAFSA doesn't capture their financial situation. "The one thing that people don't really know about is that, yeah, you can appeal financial aid packages that don't live up to what the actual reality of things are," he says. "Whatever first offer you get doesn't have to be the final."
After you submit your financial aid application, college financial aid officers have the ability to reconsider aid packages when financial situations change, unexpected expenses emerge, or a person's circumstances are not fully captured on their FAFSA. It's officially called professional judgement, though most refer to it as the appeals process, and it's a power handed down by Congress.
And in a year like no other, colleges are bracing for an influx of student requests. Tejada says that works to a student's advantage. "A lot of people [at the college you're applying to] know what's happening right now. So no one is in their own bubble," he says. "But the most important thing is that you speak up about it."
In October, a survey from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators found that about 60% of financial aid offices at more than 200 colleges saw an increase in appeal requests between March 1 and Sept. 21 compared to the previous year. A third of respondents saw students' requests more than double.
"The financial aid office is your friend in this process," explains Karla Weber, who works in the financial aid office at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "I think sometimes we get made out to be the ones that are hiding or hoarding this money from students, where it's really just the opposite."
Her office saw an uptick in appeals through the spring and summer and is anticipating more to come. "2020 has been a crazy year for a lot of people," Weber says, and the most important thing for students to do is communicate with the colleges they've applied to. "Let them know, 'Hey, something's happened. Our finances are just a little bit different now. What can we do to let you know so you can take a second look?'"
Despite its increased use during the pandemic, the appeals process is "a black box from a transparency perspective," explains Abigail Seldin, who helped create SwiftStudent. The U.S. Department of Education doesn't collect data from colleges showing how much additional aid is given, which students appeal or which students are funded after submitting a request. In a recent op-ed in Inside Higher Ed, researchers from the Education Trust say this lack of transparency "raises questions about how subjective and susceptible to bias professional judgments might be."
There are also limitations for how schools can adjust a student's aid package, based on the cost of attendance and the estimated amount a family can pay. And then there's the fact that institutions only have so much money to offer, especially at a time when many colleges have issued layoffs, seen budget cuts and taken revenue hits from low enrollment.
Still Maddie Harvey, who had her financial appeal granted and successfully completed her bachelor's degree last May, says you'll never know if you don't ask: "My biggest takeaway from this experience is that it's OK to admit that you need help."