Written by Jessica Johnson, Executive Director, The Scholarship Academy

Now that the dust has somewhat settled from the coronavirus pandemic, it’s time to survey the financial damages.  In the college admissions space, you don’t have to look too far to identify the ripple effects of the global pandemic on the financial aid system.  

As the founder and Executive Director of The Scholarship Academy, a nonprofit organization that connects low-income families to a four-year college funding pipeline, I’ve spent the last decade empowering students to take ownership of the financial aid process. The last six months alone have unveiled a financial aid triple threat that cannot be ignored.  

First, the obvious. Colleges across the nation are scrambling to close deep budget holes after the coronavirus outbreak triggered financial losses that could total more than $100 million at some institutions.  This means that many incoming freshmen received financial aid award letters which included adjusted award amounts, and current college students found limited campus-based aid to close their financial aid gaps.  These changes, at a time when students have limited access to college access advisors to help them interpret their gaps in financial aid, could spell financial trouble.

States too, are grappling with budget cuts that could threaten coveted grants for in-state residents. With so much uncertainty, it is no wonder that FAFSA numbers are down nationally, a key indicator of college enrollment/retention plans for low-income students.

Now more than ever, it is time to “do financial aid differently.” Early, individualized engagement in the financial aid pipeline for independent students is going to be critical.  Below are a few key opportunities to support students with financially enrolling and maintaining matriculation, using the FAFSA as a key starting point.

Early, individualized engagement in the financial aid pipeline for independent students is going to be critical.

Challenge Students To Get Smart About The Financial Aid Process Early

Members of the college access community can leverage a host of resources to encourage students to submit their FAFSA applications much earlier than our traditional cycles. The simple act of encouraging students to submit the FAFSA by December of their senior year can lead to early funding opportunities from the University as well as community organizations. The 2021-2022 FAFSA opened on October 1, 2020. 

There’s also strength in strategic partnerships. This year, The Scholarship Academy, based in Atlanta, GA, is partnering with the United Way for Greater Atlanta’s College Bound Initiative to support 1000 families with submitting the FAFSA before January 2021.  The initiative includes collaborating with local corporate partners who are trained to provide one-on-one FAFSA application submission supports, and we’re “thinking outside the box” hosting Parking Lot FAFSA days to provide easy access to our students who need it the most. 

Help Students Communicate, in Writing, to the Financial Aid Office About Their Independent Status

Unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness need special determinations and documents to receive financial aid, which often creates barriers. COVID-19 isn’t making the process any easier, with buildings being limited or closed or long email wait times. Communicating early and often with the financial aid officers at their top college choices before they make a final college decision, can guide them towards the best college fit overall.

Answering “yes” to the homelessness  FAFSA question is only the first step in the process for unaccompanied youth.  Unaccompanied homeless youth must then submit a homeless youth determination from verifying entities such as their high school district’s homeless liaison or a director of a transitional living program. Keep a short-list of these individuals easily accessible within your student network to make the process seem less daunting. Help coordinate these letters as soon as possible so students can submit all their documentation and troubleshoot if issues arise. 

If students experiencing homelessness aren’t able to answer “yes” to the FAFSA homeless questions or receive a determination from these entities, the responsibility would then fall on the financial aid administrator to make this determination. Help inform financial aid administrators about this responsibility and remove any additional barriers students might face. 

Successful homeless youth determination requests are a blend of documentation, proper communication, and timely submissions. Advisors can easily support students in this process by setting up Virtual Office Hours during this time frame to answer their questions about the document sources that would be acceptable.  


Student Story

His name was Q and he was experiencing homelessness. He came to our office with a 2.1 GPA and a keen awareness of the role college admissions could play in transforming his life. At the end of the school year, there was a significant time crunch to make sure he could file all of the appropriate paperwork to enroll, receive a financial aid package AND get to the college campus. What was necessary from our team was a heightened level of intervention – actually going to his former high school to secure transcripts, hosting a conference call with the Admissions officer on his college campus to get a clear understanding of the financial aid application process for speedy enrollment, and finally, writing our own letters to supplement documentation of his independent status. Although we may not have the staff capacity to do this for every student, for this particular student, the extra mile made all of the difference. Today, he’s a college graduate with a family of his own, and a motivational speaking career that enables him to encourage others to pursue college pathways.

Provide Additional Resources to Help Students Tackle Financial Aid Application Barriers

For some students, it’s the little things that prevent them from clicking “submit.”  Below are a few examples of the more invisible barriers that exist: 

  • The reluctance of financial aid administrators to make unaccompanied youth FAFSA determinations has created tremendous barriers for many marginalized young people. 
  • Lack of access to printers to print and sign documents — some schools won’t accept electronic signatures. 
  • Lack of communication with local educational agency homeless liaisons and other professionals that can help them navigate these challenges.

Establishing a centralized community center during heavy FAFSA submission periods so that students can get access to computers, printers, and a caring adult to help ease some of the tensions around the financial aid process can be the difference maker. In Washington, DC, The college access organization Reach 4 Success is a great example of this work.  They’ve established a College Information Center in the heart of downtown DC so that students from any DC public school can access one-on-one financial aid planning supports.

But physical spaces are not the only solution.  On the national level, College Advising Corps, a nonprofit organization that works to increase the number of low-income, first-generation college, and underrepresented high school students who enter and complete higher education, has made significant strides in doubling down on their virtual FAFSA submission supports. Using their texting platform, they deploy advisors to build relationships with students that identify their needs and hold them accountable for progress. They’ve even created a Virtual Advising Guide to help other college access advisors.

At the local level, The Scholarship Academy has stepped up to “meet our students where they are.” We are activating a “Scholarship Mobile,” an interactive vehicle with 10 computer workstations that can be parked in high-need communities to make it easier for students to gain access to our financial aid experts.  

Truth is, regardless of their status, students, especially unaccompanied homeless youth, need to learn how to read between the financial aid line items. Vast inequities existed in the financial aid system prior to COVID-19, but we are not in the midst of a “GoFundMe” culture for financial aid. Instead, we must find ways to build collaborative networks to ensure that ALL students, especially students experiencing homelessness, are able to access key financial aid opportunities.

Jessica Johnson is a Howard University graduate and recipient of over $200,000 in scholarships. As the Founder and Executive Director of The Scholarship Academy, she has spent the last decade serving as a family scholarship consultant and travels throughout the country conducting scholarship workshops for organizations such as The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLS), The U.S Department of Labor, The New York Urban League and the National Center of Philanthropy.

Jessica is the author of The Scholarship Workbook, a 3-step guide to securing top scholarship awards. She has helped students claim more than $40 million in private scholarships, and her work has been honored through several national fellowships including Echoing Green, the Ashoka Changemaker Awards, and the Points of Light Foundation’s Civic Accelerator. She currently serves on the Georgia GEAR UP Leadership Team and the Atlanta Public School’s Equity Taskforce.

Jessica Johnson

Founder and Executive Director, The Scholarship Academy

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