A novel financial aid process for a novel virus

PSU Financial Aid is launching a new process to address financial turmoil in light of COVID-19

Portland State’s Financial Aid Office sent an email to students on July 10 alerting them of an upcoming appeals process regarding awards for the 2020–21 school year. Designed to help those affected by COVID-19, the program will adjust aid to help students whose financial status has changed in light of the pandemic.


Usually, financial aid awards are based on data from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This data is used to calculate Estimated Family Contribution, which, in turn, determines students’ eligibility for Pell grants, Stafford loans and other scholarships.


It takes information from two tax years prior to the year for which aid is being applied. For the upcoming 2020–21 school year, students who applied for aid used tax information from 2018.


A lot has changed for PSU students in the last two years. As COVID-19 ravages the United States, the economy is in turmoil. Today, many students are facing financial realities they could not have foreseen.


In past years, appeals were not unheard of. “Our standard policy to address this issue is we allow students to file an appeal to consider the prior year’s tax information—that’s only going one year back,” said Elijah Herr, the director of the Financial Aid Office overseeing this process. This year, things will be different. 


“We’re going to use a provision in the law that allows us to use a thing called projected income,” Herr said. “However, we don’t like to do this because it’s really difficult for people to estimate how much money they’re going to make in the future.”


This means that students will be asked to estimate how much they will make next school year and financial aid awards will be based on this. 


“When we turn on the application on August 1, they’re going to have to provide documentation to fill out a form, and they’re going to write a statement of no more than 1,200 words explaining what has happened to them as a result of the COVID-19,” Herr said. 


The Financial Aid Office will use the gathered information and its professional judgment to project students’ income in the upcoming academic year. Using this information, it will revise financial aid awards. 

This could lower Estimate Family Contributions and make many more students eligible for Pell grants, loans and scholarships they may not have been eligible for previously.


“We’re building a smart application right now—it’s one of the reasons why we can’t turn this on until August 1—and the application is going to test for several different criteria before we make students submit anything,” Herr said. “For example, if a student already has a zero EFC, that means that they have already received the maximum amount of aid they can for the year.” If students haven’t received a financial aid award letter, they need to wait until they get that before the Financial Aid Office can process their appeal.


Herr emphasized that no one who enters the process would be deemed eligible for less aid. 


As universities across the country enter a time of great uncertainty across all departments, Herr pleaded for patience. “Please, please, please be patient, we’re doing our best,” he said.