College Students Can Get More Aid During the Coronavirus Crisis

Anna HelhoskiAugust 12, 2020
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College students who left their campuses in droves as stay-at-home orders rolled in were often met with a whole new financial reality.

They had to relocate in a hurry, racking up unexpected travel and moving costs. Their rented apartments, dorm rooms and meal plans are now going unused. They may have lost a job or left one behind. They may need broadband access or even a new computer to complete the semester remotely.

To top it off, the home they go to may be facing financial straits of its own.

By week three of the coronavirus pandemic, half of college students and college-bound high school seniors said their family’s finances had been affected, according to a survey of 1,000 students by SimpsonScarborough, a higher education marketing and research firm in Alexandria, Virginia. With millions losing their jobs each week, that number has only grown since.

Here are three ways those students can find some help.

Get a refund from your school

Those who had to move out of dorms early will likely get a refund for room and board — the coronavirus relief act allocated money to colleges specifically for this purpose. You can expect a prorated amount, not the full cost you paid for the semester. Your college financial aid office will have information on how to receive a refund.

If you receive a cash refund instead of an account credit, you can use the money to pay for any education-, travel- or living-related expenses you’ve incurred as a result.

But if your room and board was paid through a student loan and you don’t need the refund to make ends meet, consider returning it to the lender. Making a payment now prevents interest from accruing in the time before repayment officially begins. Contact your student loan servicer, the company that manages your loan, or private lender to make a payment with your refund.

Seek emergency aid from your college

The Department of Education is sending billions of dollars to colleges through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund authorized by the coronavirus relief act. Approximately $6.28 billion is specifically intended for colleges to distribute to students in the form of emergency cash grants. The grants can be used to pay for education-related technology and supplies, housing, food, child care and health care, the Education Department says.

“We are turning around applications very quickly, but it’s up to the schools how they choose to get the funding to their students,” says an Education Department spokesperson in an email. So far about half of eligible schools have applied to receive the grant funding, according to the department.

You are eligible to receive an emergency grant whether or not you filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. However, your school might require the FAFSA from those who didn’t complete it previously in order to receive the aid.

"Some may do a more blanket approach" for students who get need-based aid, like a Pell Grant, while others might require an application, says Ben Miller, vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a public policy research organization. “I could see some doing a balance where some is automatic and some is held back for an application.”

Most schools are still in the early stages of figuring out distribution, but some have a plan.

At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, for example, students with previously identified financial need will receive $1,100 each from the $2.8 million the school will receive. About 20% of the population will qualify, Vanderbilt estimates.

At the University of Connecticut, students are being instructed to email the financial aid office, which triggers a review of their new financial need, according to Stephanie Reitz, university spokesperson and manager of media relations.

Your school may also have its own emergency fund established. These programs typically require students to apply.

At State University of New York at Cortland, a student emergency fund was created and funded by donor gifts. So far the school has received just under 200 applications and authorized around $36,500 in emergency assistance grants to students for food, rent and technology, says Frederic Pierce, director of communications at the college.

The type of emergency and size of awards will likely vary, says Miller, but the common thread will be an ability to demonstrate that need stems, in some way, from impacts of the coronavirus.

Only students eligible to receive federal financial aid can receive the funding, which leaves those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and international students unable to tap this resource.

Update your FAFSA form

Your family’s finances may have looked a lot different when you submitted the FAFSA. But the form you submitted isn’t permanent; you can make changes and receive aid retroactively, even if you already received your financial aid award.

To update the information reported, log in to and submit changes under "Make FAFSA Corrections." Or you can contact your school’s financial aid office and ask them to make changes for you, especially if there will be a significant change in your or your parent’s income this school year, or if there are any other family circumstances to report that the FAFSA form doesn't require.

The deadline to make updates is June 30 after the school year you need aid. For the 2019-20 school year, that’s June 30, 2020.

If you’re thinking about how you’re going to pay for school next year and you already received a financial aid award, you can file an appeal. Make sure to include a specific amount you’re asking for and reasoning for your request in your appeal.

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