A digital platform unveiled Wednesday by the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation aims to take the guesswork out of financial aid appeals. The free tool, dubbed SwiftStudent, guides students through requesting more funding, explaining eligibility, the documents applicants need and the kinds of appeals. It provides templates, powered by software company FormSwift, that let users plug in their information to generate a letter for submission to their school’s financial aid office.
“Students are going to be receiving financial aid offers from schools based on pre-pandemic data. It’s hard to imagine that data reflect their current financial situation,” said Abigail Seldin, who heads the foundation. “There’s a process in place to go back to the school and say, ‘I’m a single parent and lost my job, but I want to continue next semester. How can you help me?’ We’re trying to make it easier.”
By now, most students have already filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which the government and colleges use to determine need-based and some merit-based aid. But a lot could have changed since they submitted the form, which relies on tax data from two years ago.
A job loss, salary reduction or loss of child care are the kinds of special circumstances that could lead a college to increase a student’s financial aid package. Students may also be eligible for an adjustment because the FAFSA doesn’t capture all circumstances that might affect a family’s ability to pay for school. There’s no line to include day-care costs or medical expenses, which could warrant more aid.
“The very premise of having an appeal process assumes the design of the system is flawed,” said DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College, one of Maryland’s largest community colleges. “Many times our students feel federal financial aid is a byzantine system that was not meant for them. They are adults with complex lives, and that’s not always reflected in the system.”
Pollard estimates Montgomery receives an average of 100 financial aid appeals every year from students. Having appealed her own aid package as an undergraduate at Iowa State University, Pollard said she knows how difficult it can be to articulate financial hardships.
She said the federal financial aid system should be more inclusive and account for the financial complexities of college students who are increasingly older and have families of their own. All the same, Pollard is excited that her students will have an easier way to make their case for more financial help.
“It’s an equity leveler for our students,” Pollard said of SwiftStudent.
Montgomery College is among the 17 colleges, higher education associations and advocacy groups that the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation partnered with to vet the features and functions of SwiftStudent. The foundation ran 20 focus groups, mainly with students and financial aid officers.
Seldin said students were surprised to learn they could ask for more money and frustrated by the lack of transparency. The Education Department, she said, should play a role in at least signaling to students that help is available.
“If you go to the glossary of studentaid.gov and type in ‘appeal,’ it’s not there,” Seldin said. “There is nothing about our current system, starting with the government site, that suggests that we should be proactive in telling students that their packages can be adjusted.”
Congress gives financial aid administrators leeway to use their professional judgment, which leaves little standardization in the appeals process, explained Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. He said members of the association who collaborated on SwiftStudent liked the way the form focuses students’ attention on what’s most likely to be considered in an appeal.
Draeger cautions that not every institution will necessarily accept the form and said students should check in with their financial aid offices for more information.
Professional judgment reviews could decrease a student’s expected family contribution or increase their estimated cost of attendance, making them eligible for more grants and loans. Families can appeal for more aid throughout college, even if their financial circumstances change in the middle of the semester.
Given the waves of layoffs in recent weeks, financial aid offices could be bombarded with pleas for help in the coming months.
“Schools are definitely worried about it,” Draeger said. “What we’re likely to see is a lot of middle-income families whose financial circumstances have completed changed and they’re now wondering how they’re going to pay for college.”
Colleges and universities can draw from the $7 billion in emergency grant aid the Cares Act earmarked for students to meet demand. As schools decide how to deploy the money, Seldin hopes SwiftStudent can serve as a guide for students who request help.
“I don’t care whether they use our forms or not,” Seldin said. “I care that they know that this is possible and that they are empowered to ask for help.”