Student financial aid programs ignore the economic blow of the pandemic


This story is published as part of Teen Vogue ‘2021 Economic security project scholarship.

Around the same time last year, 17-year-old Shania Winchester was struggling to figure out how to handle her homework alongside a part-time job. She had initially planned to work only a few hours to cover occasional small expenses, but her mother then lost her job when the pandemic began. Winchester began working 20 to 30 hours a week to help take care of his family.

“It was horrible. I hardly slept,” said the New Orleans high school student Vogue teens. “I was always exhausted. At some point, I would do homework at work. When I went on break, I was taking tests and finishing my homework. I have never asked for so many mission extensions in my life.

Workers across the country saw their employment status or weekly hours change abruptly and dramatically in early 2020. Now an unexpected result of this economic crisis is showing up in college financial aid programs: students find that need-based financial aid for the next academic year is based on pre-pandemic financial data that may no longer match what is in the family’s bank account.

To calculate a student’s financial aid, the ubiquitous Free Federal Student Aid Application (FAFSA) uses tax information from previous years. For the 2021-2022 academic year, for example, FAFSA relies on financial details that were submitted during the 2020 tax season; Since we submit information for the previous year when we collect our taxes, the financial details submitted to the IRS during the 2020 tax season are based on 2019 income.

Winchester says it took months for his family to collect and eliminate debts accumulated during the pandemic, let alone set aside funds to pay for his education. But Winchester’s mother “had a better job with much better hours” in 2019, so her financial aid is based on that income.

“I just wrote an appeal letter explaining my situation and I kind of had to talk about myself – like, ‘Look, I see where you all come from, but I feel like I’m worth a little more ‘”said Winchester. “A staff member contacted me personally. She said, ‘We don’t really have any money to give you anymore, but you can apply for outside scholarships and hope for the best.'” Winchester adds: ” I was pretty much stuck with the help I have, which I’m grateful for, but it’s not enough. ”

Abigail Seldin has spent years helping students navigate the cumbersome financial aid appeals process. As the Founder and CEO of the Seldin / Haring-Smith Foundation (SHSF), she has partnered with FormSwift, academic advisers, financial aid officers, other higher education professionals and students to develop SwiftStudent. Launched in 2020, SwiftStudent is a free online tool that provides students with appeal letter templates and a framework to move forward in the appeal process.

“We really thought SwiftStudent was a translation tool, if that makes sense,” says Seldin. “Financial aid in the United States is its own language, and institutions and the federal government have more work to do to make this language more easily understood by students and their families.”

Seldin started developing the SwiftStudent tool in December 2019, so pandemic-specific considerations were not yet in mind. But once SHSF launched SwiftStudent in April 2020, the need was immediately clear. “We had traffic [to the website] in all 50 states within three days of launch, and this has been consistent over the past year, ”said Seldin. “I think it really meets the national need. This pain from COVID-19 is being felt everywhere. Students were struggling before the pandemic, but those needs have become more acute during the pandemic. Housing and food insecurity was high before and is higher now. “