College financial aid: What parents and students need to know starting Oct. 1

Special attention for the 2021-22 school year will be given to appeals based on family income reductions due to Covid-19.

  • By Cheryl Winokur Munk,
  • The Wall Street Journal
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For many families, this year’s process of applying for financial aid might be notably different than it was in the past.

That is because the financial-aid forms for the 2021-22 academic year are based on income from 2019. As a result of the pandemic lockdowns wreaking havoc on their finances, more families are likely to seek professional judgment from financial-aid administrators who have the authority to adjust their awards.

This is something students were always able to do, before Covid-19, if they had a change in circumstances that could change their aid, such as a job loss or major medical issue. “But certainly now institutions are prepared for a greater influx of these requests due to the impact of the virus,” says Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Here’s what families experiencing changed finances should do and expect from this year’s financial-aid process.

1. Determine each school's professional judgment process

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (Fafsa) for federal aid and the College Board’s CSS Profile, which hundreds of colleges use as part of their financial-aid process, become available on Oct. 1.

It is the CSS Profile, not the Fafsa, where families have a chance to elaborate on their changed financials in a “special circumstances” section. Families this year also will be asked if they have a change of income or other financial changes related to Covid-19, a College Board spokeswoman says.

It will be especially important this year to know and follow each school’s procedures for seeking professional judgment. Be sure to visit the website of your current school (or any prospective schools you’re considering) to see what process you’ll need to follow if your income is significantly different from your 2019 tax return. There is no uniform process for these types of appeals. Some schools will want an email, while some want information sent through the financial-aid office’s portal, for example.

“The important thing is to follow what their process is. If you submit more than what they ask for, they probably aren’t going to look at it. If you don’t submit what they ask for, they may not consider your appeal. You have to follow their process to a T and get everything in on time,” says Ross Riskin, certified college financial consultant and associate professor of taxation at the American College of Financial Services.

Families should be prepared to share what happened to cause the change in income. The financial-aid office could request a variety of documents, such as a statement on letterhead indicating the last date of employment, copies of paychecks, and documentation of the gross income for the person whose employment status changed, Ms. Coval says.

2. Don't assume you won't qualify

Some families don’t fill out the financial-aid forms because they think they make too much money to qualify. But it is always a good idea to fill out the forms anyway, and it is especially true if you had a job loss or a significant reduction in income, since you could now be eligible for aid that you weren’t eligible for before, Ms. Coval says. For instance, even if you still make too much money to qualify for a federal Pell Grant, you may now be eligible for institutional funds, so it is worth applying, she says.

3. Follow up with the aid office

Once you’ve sent in the required documentation, it is a good idea to follow up with the aid office to check on the status of your appeal. Understand there could be delays, especially since schools are dealing with resource constraints and a potentially greater number of appeals, Dr. Riskin says.

Families should also plan for potential delays in receiving their aid packages, he says.

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