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Students Affected By The Pandemic May Face Extra Hurdles For Financial Aid. Here's What They Should Know

A poster at Alhambra High School explains the various forms of financial aid available for college-bound students. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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As college-bound students await news of acceptance to schools for this Fall, most will get financial aid offers based largely on their family's pre-pandemic income. For many, that's a relic from a more financially stable past that could cost students millions in aid.

It could also make it tricky for prospective students to figure out whether they can afford college in the first place, and to compare offers from different schools.

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Students can ask schools to recalculate their aid package if their financial situation, as initially reported on their Free Application For Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, has changed. But many students aren't aware of this, said Adam Gottlieb, senior manager for postsecondary initiatives at UNITE-LA, an organization that works to make college more accessible for underserved youth.

"If I were filling out a FAFSA right now, I would assume that the IRS -- which I didn't understand as a high schooler, which I don't completely understand as a tax-paying adult -- would just know that my situation has changed because it's the government and I assume that they know these things," Gottlieb said.

Even if students do know they can appeal a financial aid award, the process can be daunting, said Lina Calderón-Morin, deputy director of the Southern California College Access Network.

"I would say 99% of the time the student has no idea how even to use the language to appeal for this type of situation. And for most of our families, too, who are very low-income, the parents don't have any idea how to do this, either," Calderón-Morin said.

"It's a very, you know, intimidating process because it sounds so legal from the get-go. An appeal for aid? Is this something that people do? How do you do it?"

Yes, it is. Here's how you do it.

(If you read through and still have questions about financial aid, let me know.)

How Student Financial Aid Works

First, a quick explanation of how financial aid for college works.

Any student who wants to be eligible for federal loans, grants or work-study has to fill out the Free Application For Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Many schools and states, including California, also use the application to award state aid such as Cal Grants.

The FAFSA's 106 questions about a student and their family's finances and living situation -- for example, the number of people in the household -- are used to determine an index number known as Expected Family Contribution. (The term "Expected Family Contribution" will be permanently replaced by "student aid index" starting with the 2023-2024 school year. This change and others that simplify the FAFSA and expand federal aid, were part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, signed into law in late December.)

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Colleges subtract the index from the cost of attending their school to figure out how much financial aid a student would need to attend. (The Federal Student Aid office has a more detailed explanation on their website.)

Schools can then use that information to offer prospective and current students loans, grants and scholarships.

In California, students who are undocumented and therefore do not qualify for federal financial aid can apply for state financial aid by filling out the California Dream Act Application, or CADAA.

Some schools -- including Caltech, the Claremont Colleges, and Occidental -- also require students to fill out a supplementary financial aid application, the CSS profile, which is used to determine eligibility for grants and scholarships from sources other than the federal government.

While the FAFSA and CADAA do ask about a family's current balance of cash and whether an applicant or their parents have lost a job, much of the financial information collected on the application is based on tax returns from two years prior. In other words, students filling out a FAFSA with plans to attend college in Fall 2021 would submit tax information from pre-pandemic 2019.

Former first lady Michelle Obama delivered remarks at a FAFSA workshop at the T.C. Williams High School on February 5, 2014 in Alexandria, Virginia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Why? The Obama administration changed the FAFSA to require "prior-prior year" tax information with the intention of making it easier for students to submit their aid applications earlier in the college-going process. In the past, students would have to wait until they or their parents filed the previous year's taxes before submitting a FAFSA. That meant students often received acceptance letters from universities before they had a full picture of how they could pay for it.

Education leaders applauded the clunkily named prior-prior rule. "It works for the vast majority of families in the vast majority of years because most families have consistent income year-to-year," said Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

But 2020 was, well, 2020, and the prior-prior rule doesn't work so well when an estimated 4-in-10 adults lost jobs or income during the pandemic. Those losses weren't reflected at all for many students who filled out a FAFSA for the 2020-21 school year and they might not be fully reflected for students filing for financial aid for the 2021-22 school year.

Major expenses, such as a family's out-of-pocket medical bills or a new baby, can also change a student's financial situation after they file their FAFSA, and therefore might not be reflected in their student aid package.

What If My Family Doesn't Have The Same Kind Of Money It Had In 2019?

This is where an appeal comes in. If a student gets a financial aid offer that doesn't seem to reflect their current ability to pay for school, they can contact the school and request to have their financial aid package reconsidered.

"FAFSA is just the first step," said Calderón-Morin from the SoCal College Access Network. "But all aid letters ... are appealable."

The appeal process is officially known as "professional judgment."

The federal government doesn't specify when to contact a school about a professional judgment appeal, but McCarthy said students who know their FAFSA doesn't accurately capture their family's financial picture should do so as soon as possible.

"Don't wait until you get the bill from your business office and you can't pay the tuition bill."

Prospective students can ask a school for a professional judgment review even before they've been accepted. So, say you or someone you love has applied to their dream school and submitted a FAFSA, but is now in worse financial shape than the numbers reported on that FAFSA. You can reach out to the school's financial aid office now to let them know.

If you're considering multiple schools, you'll have to do this with each school individually.

Before You Appeal, Find Out If It's Worth It

The professional judgment process can be tedious and hard to navigate for many students. "It requires additional documentation that sometimes isn't available, especially if you have a parent who only works on cash-based payments," Calderón-Morin said.

"In addition to that, you can just wait for a long time to hear any kind of confirmation [from the financial aid office] that they received the appeal. And then they'll come back with another list of documents that you need to now send and confirm. And sometimes they need to be notarized," she said.

In other words, it's a lot. So before you go through all that, find out whether additional funding is available. Some students may already be eligible for, or be receiving, the maximum aid possible --even with an outdated FAFSA, said Marcos Montes, project manager for the Covid-era virtual hub Let's Go To College California.

"One of the problems that we're seeing, unfortunately, is that probably the people who are being most impacted by the pandemic are families and students who are already very low income so they're already capped at how much aid they can [get]," Montes said.

Even if you think you might be capped out, though, you should still ask. Many schools have awarded emergency grants to students affected by the pandemic. Financial aid officers may also be able to suggest potential scholarships and private sources of aid.

How Do I Contact The Financial Aid Office At A Particular School?

In pre-pandemic times, you could probably find the office on campus and talk to an actual person, in-person. (I know, crazy.)

Some schools have reached out to students proactively, for example, via email, to tell them about their options if they're facing financial strain. If that's not your school, or you're not yet enrolled, your best bet is to check the school's website to find contact information -- phone or email -- for the financial aid office.

By this point in the pandemic, even if the campus is closed, most schools have modified their phone systems so that someone will pick up from their home office.

Many colleges also have chatbots that can answer basic questions and point students in the right direction, and virtual lobbies where you can set up a video or phone conference with a financial aid officer.

As for the actual appeal, some schools have a specific form they'll want students to fill out.

There's also now a free online tool, SwiftStudent, developed in response to the pandemic, that helps students figure out what documents they'll likely need for an appeal and generates a letter that you can submit to the financial aid office.

What If I Haven't Filled Out My FAFSA Or CADAA Yet?

It's not too late -- the deadline to file a FAFSA or CADAA to be considered for a Cal Grant for the 2021-22 school year is March 2. Cal Grants provide money to qualifying California residents to pay for tuition, fees and, in some cases, living expenses at in-state schools.

Even if you're just thinking about attending college next fall, but haven't actually decided, submitting a financial aid application can help you figure out how much help you can expect if you decide to attend.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than 1 million Californians cancelled plans to attend college in Fall 2020 because of financial concerns. And higher education advocates fear another big drop in college enrollment this year.

As of mid-December, the number of California high school seniors completing FAFSA applications was down nearly 13% compared to last year, according to an online FAFSA tracker sponsored by the National College Attainment Network.

"Our hope is that the sooner students submit their FAFSA and get those results and get financial aid award letters, that'll help encourage and increase the number of students who go to college and enroll," said Calderón-Morin, "because they'll actually get to see those numbers on paper. Where if they opt out and just don't submit at all, it's just going to be another reason why, 'Well, I don't know, I probably couldn't afford it anyway and I'm not going to go.'"

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