Like many of her college-going peers, Katelyn Perryman submitted her application for federal financial aid last fall. And like everyone else, the Howard University sophomore could not have anticipated the calamity that a pandemic would unleash several months later.
With nearly 17 million people applying for unemployment benefits in recent weeks—many of them students and their parents—financial hardship has taken on a new, unprecedented scale. “Students are out of work. Many moved out at a moment’s notice, and there are costs. I’ve had friends rent out storage units. I know parents who’ve lost their jobs,” says Perryman.
Unbeknownst to many students, there is a way they can request additional aid from their colleges and universities when their financial circumstances have changed. This option has long existed, but a new online service launched today hopes to make that process simpler and more transparent.
Called SwiftStudent, the website walks students through the documents and forms they need in order to submit a financial aid appeal to their institution’s aid office. It includes information about the different situations in which a student is eligible, and includes templates they can use to generate an appeals letter.
In most cases, financial aid recipients are unaware that they can appeal for extra support, according to Abigail Seldin, co-founder and CEO of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, which helped to produce SwiftStudent. “Most students think that the offers they get are immutable,” she says. Oftentimes, and especially during the current pandemic, “the financial aid package most students will get does not reflect their current circumstances, because the financial information they submitted will not be relevant anymore,” she adds.
Nearly 19 million students applied for financial aid during the 2017-2018 year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The foundation was established last summer by Seldin and her husband to support projects related to immigration reform and higher education. The nuanced world of college finances is one familiar to Seldin, who previously founded and sold College Abacus, a company that helps prospective college students and families calculate tuition, costs and what financial assistance is available at different institutions.
The idea started in September 2019, based in part on Seldin’s observation that many students were unaware of the different kinds of financial aid available to them, such as dependent care allowances for students with children.
Her hunch had support. A recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that many federal subsidies for student parents were often under-utilized, and that about two-thirds of the college websites it analyzed offered no information about this aid. Even more, the report noted that schools “are not required to inform students about the dependent care allowance.”
SwiftStudent is the product of a partnership between the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation and FormSwift, a company best known for its tool for creating, sending and signing digital legal documents. (Seldin and FormSwift’s CEO were also classmates from their days at the University of Pennsylvania.) The service is free, and Seldin says the website does not share or sell personal data.
Development work for SwiftStudent began in December 2019. Seldin estimates that her foundation contributed less than $250,000 to the project. FormSwift provided in-kind support in the form of developers and engineers, and will cover the costs of maintaining the website. Along the way, Seldin enlisted the help of 17 colleges and higher-ed advocacy organizations, including the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, to review, test and spread the word about the website.
It Pays to Ask—and Appeal
A prerequisite for seeking help is knowing that it is available. Yet for Laurie Franklin, the dean of enrollment and student financial services at Everett Community College in Washington, “one common theme” in her work is that “students don’t know they can appeal or advocate for themselves when it comes to financial aid and extenuating circumstances,” she says.
Typical challenges for financial aid recipients involve balancing studies with family and work commitments, and adjusting to the rigors of college coursework, Franklin adds. At Everett, which serves just under 20,000 students, she says “a very low number” go to the financial aid office to seek additional help, and that “15 to 20 percent of students who lose their financial aid due to failing grades actually appeal” for help under extenuating circumstances.
Even among those who are aware of the option to appeal, it is not always clear what forms they need to submit, or what details they need to include in their letter.
Perryman, the Howard University student, learned about it through others. And she recalls feeling confused and daunted as she researched and helped them write their appeal letters. The first was for a fellow student she was babysitting for, who needed assistance for child care. The second was for her cousin, whose mother was incarcerated and was seeking additional financial support for her studies.
“A lot of this involved looking at the internet, and I was nervous about messing it up,” recalls Perryman. “There is a lot of information out there, but I wasn’t sure when I was writing whether I was even using the right language. I was often asking myself, ‘Am I doing this right?’’
Fortunately, both appeal attempts were successful.
A Google search for “financial aid appeal” returns blog posts on college affiliate marketing sites, and others like NerdWallet, with general pointers about the steps involved. SwiftStudent goes a little further, providing letter templates with fill-in-the-blank fields where students provide details about their financial circumstances. Afterwards, students print out the letter and submit it, along with supporting documentation, to their institution’s financial aid office.
There are 10 letter templates covering 14 different appeal scenarios. Seldin expects letters for special circumstances and emergency aid to be widely used, given their relevance to the financial hardship caused by COVID-19.
The federal stimulus bill, CARES Act, allocates about $14 billion to colleges and universities, and half of each institution’s grant amount is earmarked for emergency student aid, for needs including food, housing, health and child care. More than $6 billion has already been distributed.
“This is going to save our financial aid staff a lot of time,” says Franklin, of Everett Community College. “A lot of appeals are often missing information, and there is a lot of time and energy that goes into the back-and-forth to get what we need to approve an appeal.” She expects that her team of 10 evaluators, like many others at colleges across the country, will be kept plenty busy reviewing appeals in the coming months.
“There are many unsung heroes in this crisis,” says Seldin. “One of them are financial aid officers who are working around the clock to field requests and try to help students.”