Welcome to Race on Campus. How much does the unconscious bias of a financial-aid officer affect which students are given aid? It may be more than you think. This week, our Katherine Mangan spoke with financial-aid counselors about rethinking the financial-aid process, with equity as the focus.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

Rethinking ‘Professional Judgment’

In his first year as a financial-aid counselor, Michael Birchett was skeptical when a student cited a flat tire as a reason he’d been forced to drop classes and had lost eligibility for aid. “Coming from a middle-class background, I almost laughed,” said Birchett, whose parents would have offered to pay for such a repair when he was in college. “How could that derail your career?”

For Christina Tangalakis, the realization that her financial-aid judgment had been clouded by privilege came when she broke down the racial makeup of the students her office had targeted for verification. The overwhelming majority of those selected, she realized, were Black or Hispanic, and students who reported being homeless were among those who needed to prove their status, say, with a letter from the director of a homeless shelter.

The verification requirement was one more humiliating hurdle that caused some to give up. “It was having the absolute opposite effect of what we say we are — inclusive and open,” she said. “The more we ask of them, the harder we make it, the more likely they are to abandon it.”

Birchett, now director of counseling and outreach at the University of Kentucky, and Tangalakis, associate dean for student financial aid at Glendale Community College, are hoping their peers will discover their own unconscious biases in how they decide who’s worthy of aid, and how much. “People don’t realize they bring these hidden biases to the table each time they make a decision,” Birchett said.

They’re two of the authors of a new tool kit being distributed by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. It suggests the most equitable ways to frame financial-aid forms and develop cost-of-attendance policies, scholarships, and verification requirements. It also encourages administrators to take a closer look at how they adjust someone’s federal financial-aid eligibility based on their “professional judgment” of the student’s situation.

The student derailed by a flat tire said that when he could no longer make it to campus, he’d withdrawn from his courses, which dropped him below the U.S. Department of Education’s threshold for satisfactory academic progress. The federal government allows financial-aid administrators to use their discretion to restore eligibility for aid, which Birchett might have done if he’d understood the student’s predicament.

Tangalakis said that financial-aid professionals like herself are accustomed to thinking of their work as quantitative and largely exempt from concerns about bias. “But the longer you’re in financial aid and the more critically you look at it, the more you see patterns that fall more heavily on certain populations,” she said.

Low-income and first-generation students often struggle to fill out complex financial-aid forms that require them to track down noncustodial parents and gather data — often without an older adult’s help — to prove they’re poor.

The U.S. Department of Education has temporarily relaxed verification requirements, citing steep enrollment declines this spring among low-income and minority students. There’s only so much financial-aid professionals can do to make the process easier, but an awareness of their own blind spots helps, the authors of the new guide contend.

They define implicit or unconscious biases as “the assumptions, stereotypes, and unintentional beliefs about others based on their perceivable characteristics.” The biases can be positive or negative and can influence decisions and behaviors, the authors write.

Among their suggestions for creating more neutral financial-aid policies and communications:

  • Avoid industry jargon and use inclusive language. For instance, use gender-neutral pronouns and refer to “parent 1” and “parent 2” instead of mother and father so those with diverse family structures and backgrounds feel welcome.
  • When describing the costs of attending the college, create different categories for students with different needs to account for factors like affordable housing and food. Make sure the budget would provide a moderate standard of living for most students across all demographics.
  • Reach out to students from marginalized backgrounds to be sure they’re aware of their options to appeal financial-aid decisions.
  • When selecting scholarship recipients, remove personally identifiable information including names. Consider providing implicit-bias-awareness training to scholarship-committee members and make sure the committee reflects the campus’s entire population.

That way, said Birchett, “you can actually understand what life is like for various populations.”

Read Up

  • For many low-income, often racially diverse students, navigating financial aid can be a challenge. Getting to college is a big hurdle to begin with. In this 2017 story, our Eric Hoover writes about those long last miles. (The Chronicle)
  • The Summer Olympics are in full swing. Here’s why a swim cap for Black athletes is important. (The New York Times)
  • During the pandemic, many Black women got a break from the microaggressions of the corporate world as many white-collar jobs went remote. What happens when workers are told to go back to the office? (The Washington Post)

—Fernanda