Though I have no legal authorization to declare this, I’m moving the college admissions world, especially financial aid, to DEFCON 2. This should really come as no surprise. We expected a significant impact from COVID, and there is an abundance of news stories of late discussing the lower rate of FAFSA filers among would be first time applicants and CA Dream Act filers in California. Recent studies (https://www.nasfaa.org/uploads/documents/Survey_Professional_Judgment_COVID.pdf) have shown that among those filing, the students are asking for more aid than in previous years.
An already arduous process for many students in normal times is of course being magnified by the world issues and the raising virus rates through America. The additional steps some must follow for verification, or having a family/life situation remotely outside the traditional path, or the need to appeal for more aid, are never as straight forward as they should be.
I want to stop for a second and be clear that our counterparts in financial aid offices are generally very helpful people who go above and beyond to help students when challenging situations occur. I know that most of our financial aid officers would not think twice about giving students the full amount of aid they need if it were as simple as flipping a switch or signing off on something. Unfortunately the red tape from state and federal governments require them to act more as gatekeepers sometimes. That’s a limitation of the system we’re in, not a limitation from our financial aid helpers.
As the virus cases rage there are many of us facing the very real possibility that there will be no in person schooling for the spring as well. I know we will go above and beyond to help our students, but the challenges are getting compounded. Helping students in person with financial aid forms allows us to look at those tax documents with them to make sure they’re putting in the right information. Virtually, it’s more of a challenge that can get confusing for students when we don’t each have the paperwork in front of us.
Our counterparts in financial aid offices are going to be spending a lot more time this year in reviewing appeals for more aid or having to review more verification documents. While application rates are down, which is a problem, those filling it out are going to be more likely to have honest mistakes by virtue of filling it out on their own or having to try and get help virtually. I anticipate the percentage of students getting marked for additional verification will only increase this year. And even in normal times there are sadly many students who don’t follow through on what they are asked to do with verification. And if they do reach out to financial aid offices, as we said, those offices are going to be busier than ever.
I know that we have all been working harder than ever since March and that no one has any intention of slowing down. (Not counting your winter breaks, which I do beg you to take some time away from your laptops and focus on your mental health, because spring won’t be any easier.) Some people have adapted and found ways to “work smarter, not harder” and props to you if you have figured out the magic formula.
Regardless of how much we as individuals may have changed our approach, it’s time for a heightened sense of awareness as we head into the spring. Hence, the DEFCON 2 designation. You can do everything right, you can have a perfect plan in place to serve your students, but if you’re not already, you need to be prepared for things beyond your control to get much harder for them in the upcoming months.
There is no perfect formula for what this looks like, as it will vary site to site based upon your student population and their individual needs. But it is time we move to DEFCON 2 in our preparedness for the spring semester ahead. We all hoped that the calendar moving to 2021 would signify a return to better times, but we won’t be there quite yet.
On a positive note, if there is any group of people who can rise to this challenge, I know it’s the people whose eyes will see this. For the vast majority of us, this is not a big dollar field. We’re not in this for the spending power of our paychecks or for the glory. We are in this because we are student focused and care about seeing our students move on to the best situation possible. I know that we will do great by our students in helping them navigate the terrain ahead.
And as I mentioned before, when your winter break starts, take some time to care about yourself and your mental health. Grab the holiday nog, the cookies, your favorite film, or whatever helps to ease your mind. For me I’ll have my fingers crossed that my fantasy football teams make it to championship week while I enjoy the stouts and darker beers of the season, recharging for the spring ahead. (Please throw 3 or 4 touchdowns a game in December Ryan Tannehill, I don’t think that’s too much to ask.)