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Financial Aid Challenges and Tips for College Students Amid COVID-19

For families looking to afford college expenses this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned a lot of plans upside down. And as reports of rising pandemic numbers in the U.S. don’t appear to be going away, some financial aid experts say the view isn’t looking anymore clear going into the fall.

With many families experiencing cutbacks in hours, layoffs and other economic challenges this year, the financial outlook for them isn’t what it was a few weeks or months ago.

And now with a lot of schools preparing cautious plans to reopen this fall while also weighing online learning opportunities, many prospective students are determining whether college is a realistic option this year.

“It’s such uncharted territory,” said Marie Batson, associate vice president for enrollment and director of financial aid at University of Mobile. “I’ve been working in enrollment and financial aid for 25 years here at the university … things are just different, just a whole new ballgame.”

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LOWER NUMBERS

The number of students who typically applied for U.S. federal college aid fell by half in the spring, compared to levels the year before, according to the Associated Press. This raised concerns many students were planning to skip or postpone college education for now to enter the workforce or planning to attend community college.

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While the number of applicants has gone up as colleges have ramped up efforts to encourage students to apply for federal aid, AP reported July 5, the numbers are still lower than this time the year before. Overall, the report says, “applications were down by 70,000 as of June 19, representing a 3.7% drop for the entire application cycle.”

To remain eligible for federal loans, students are required to attend school at least half-time, according to studentaid.gov. Most schools offered online teaching to allow students to complete assignments and meet the requirements.

And, according to the Department of Education, work study students were allowed to continue receiving funding as long as work was started or continued through remote work or other arrangements. But payment schedules and policies on this varied from school to school, according to a Fox News report.

Many students are simply trying to figure out what their options are amid rapidly changing outlooks on jobs, the economy and COVID-19.

INCREASED CALL VOLUME

“We have had an increased volume in the number of parents or students calling, wanting to know what can they do if their parent(s) have lost their job, or their hours have been cut back as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown,” said Batson, noting that students have also lost jobs as well.

“There were a lot of our students that may have had jobs,” she said, “and because everything shut down, they were laid off or let go for a short period of time so that makes a difference in their money.”

FIRST STEPS

Before any decisions can be made on financial aid for college, students first need to determine how much federal financial aid is available through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Recipients are required to complete the FAFSA form every year they are enrolled in school

While deadlines and requirements vary for state scholarships, students can begin applying for federal aid as early as Oct. 1 for the following academic year, according to Federal Student Aid office website.

Some of the determining factors on eligibility, the website says, include expected family contributions, the student’s year in school and cost of tuition, fees and books.

EFFECTS OF COVID-19

After completing the form, each school’s financial aid department can then help students determine how much aid they are eligible for at that school for that year.

But many families are concerned that their FAFSA information, which is reflective of their 2018 income, does not show an accurate picture of their current situation, said Page Bates, director of financial aid at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.

“Many families have been highly affected by layoffs and furloughs resulting in a drastic decrease in accessible income,” Bates said. This has resulted in an increase in the number of students and parents requesting “Special Circumstance” consideration due to the change in income as a result of COVID-19,” Bates said.

“In this instance,” she noted, “the students and their parents need to speak with their institutions financial aid department for more information on this process.”

Another significant change has involved the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Since March, federal loan borrowers have been allowed to temporarily forgo making monthly payments to their federal loan debt from March 13 until Sept. 30.

Batson noted that as more students are calling with questions related to the changing financial landscape, the amount of time on the phone has significantly increased.

And since the pandemic caused many financial aid staff to work from home — at least for a time — those calls and texts have come at all hours.

Both Bates and Batson encourage students and their families to not be afraid to reach out to their financial aid office for help.

“We understand how hard this crisis has been and how our students and their families have been impacted,” Bates said. And she noted that “no one knows what a student and their family has endured as a result of COVID-19 unless they ask for help.”

There are an “abundance of avenues that can be explored when searching for educational funding other than federal or state financial aid,” she said.

SERVING STUDENTS

“We are here to serve our students and will do all we can to lessen their burdens,” Bates said. “No student should be forced to give up his or her dream. [Students] should reach out so that their institution is aware they have concerns.”

Article reprinted with permission from TAB Media.



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