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At a time when the economic impact of the pandemic is disproportionately hurting the incomes of Black and Latino families, financial aid officers at universities and colleges could use their professional discretion to help keep students of color in school.

However, first-generation students in particular might not know that officers are allowed to adjust the financial information used to determine the amount of aid they can receive if they or their families have lost a job or had their income cut, says a new policy paper by Education Trust.

Jaime Ramirez-Mendoza, an Education Trust higher education policy analyst, said in an interview he’d been a first-generation student and didn’t know administrators could use their professional judgement to take recent changes in a family’s income into consideration. Whether students can get more aid “could mean the difference between getting a degree or [being] one of the 36 million students who drop out,” said Ramirez-Mendoza, who wrote the brief with Tiffany Jones, the group’s senior adviser on higher education policy.

At the same time, the paper said, there is the potential for racial bias should financial aid officers use their discretion. However, neither the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators nor the Education Department keeps track of the racial demographics of the administrators. Two-thirds of financial aid offices said they are not considering making the members of committees hearing appeals of financial aid judgments more diverse.

The lack of demographic data about the racial diversity of administrators is concerning, Jones said in an interview. “That there’s been racism in lending and financial serves is well documented and pervasive in the United States,” she said.

The paper makes a number of recommendations. Among them, that the Education Department to require institutions, if they do not do it on their own, to make publicly available the racial demographics of financial aid officers, and to track and make available data, separated by the race of students, on decisions made using the officers’ professional judgment.