After the coronavirus began working through the U.S. last spring, the U.S. Department of Education urged colleges to use their ability to adjust parts of students’ federal financial aid forms to reflect their economic hardships better.
Aid applications rely on dated tax forms that don’t always illustrate students’ current financial circumstances, which would be a problem, for instance, if their parents lost their job or had their work hours reduced because of the pandemic.
The Biden administration reiterated this flexibility in a Dear Colleague Letter this January. In the letter, the Education Department acknowledged institutions might be wary of using this tactic, called professional judgment. That’s because the agency typically considers how frequently it’s used when selecting colleges for federal program reviews.
But in this unprecedented year, the department said increased use of professional judgment wouldn’t factor into program review selection for a few years. Given the significant uptick in such requests, many higher education leaders are celebrating the department’s decision. Colleges are also carving out other methods of ensuring students get aid.
“As our nation grapples with the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that the Department of Education provides financial aid administrators with maximum flexibility to help struggling families pay for college, and that institutions are not unfairly penalized for doing so,” Erin Powers, a spokesperson for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, wrote in an email.
What is professional judgment?
Professional judgment enables college financial aid officers to modify the information reported on students’ Free Application for Federal Student Aid, affecting how much they are expected to pay out of pocket for college.
NASFAA surveyed nearly 300 schools in the fall and found more than half of them saw an increase in the number of professional judgment requests from March through September compared to the prior year. A vast majority (84%) of schools with full-time equivalent enrollment above 20,000 reported a somewhat or significant increase.
In addition to the department encouraging colleges’ use of professional judgment, the coronavirus relief proposal making its way through Congress dictates that institutions that accept federal assistance must use some of that money to reach out to financial aid applicants. In doing so, they must discuss options for adjusting students’ aid awards.
Given many institutions’ precarious financial positions, it’s likely they will accept their allocation of the $40 billion in direct aid. The department’s reminders are “necessary messaging,” said Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at New America, a left-leaning think tank. “Because this all runs counter to what happens on a normal day, there needs to be some notice given to the schools that something is different right now.”
Applying for financial aid is already a confusing process for many students. And some, especially those who are Black or Latino, who are more likely to be first-generation, are less likely to know they can appeal how much aid they receive, according to advocacy group The Education Trust. It noted in a recent brief that the professional judgment process is not consistent across institutions. That could be cause for concern, as all judgments are subjective and potentially susceptible to implicit bias,” the organization wrote.