The COVID-19 pandemic impacted every college campus in the United States and shook things up. Students zoomed into a new class structure, and professors had to become tech-savvy overnight. While many had to depart campus much earlier than desired, others found themselves unable to learn or live on campus.
The fallout of COVID-19 also affected student financial aid, student loans, and repayment. Financial aid has adapted to the COVID-19 era, and students are sprinting to keep up.
Some things stayed the same, like completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid – FAFSA form. However, other areas of financial aid shifted, like loans for school.
Minorities to Majorities seeks to fill these gaps of financial aid concerns by connecting students with the information they need to succeed in school. We have compiled some of the top concerns and things to know about your financial aid and the coronavirus. Keep in mind this information is accurate as of the publication date, and it is best to check listed dates against new federal, state, or local guidelines.
Know Your Aid and Loan Types
Most students will submit their FAFSA form and click “accept” on their financial aid award package. Yet, not all students fully grasp what they have accepted.
You should keep track of what type of funding you have and how much. Grants are great because they consist of money for school you do not have to pay back. Student loans will need repayment – with interest.
Right now, the Department of Education has suspended interest accrual on federal student loans due to COVID-19, which is good news for borrowers. Despite these low rates, you need to know the type of aid you receive and limit school loans to just what you need.
Revisit your budget calculations based on adjustments for COVID-19 impact. Did you lose a job? Are you living at home now? Do you no longer have to commute to school and pay for gas? Did that paid internship get canceled? Adjust your budget based on these changes and then adjust your aid, especially the loan amount accepted, based on this.
To determine what type of student loans you have, follow these steps:
- Start by visiting the Federal Student Aid website
- Log in with your FSA ID and password and view the StudentAid.Gov Dashboard
- Navigate to the “View Details” section.
- Scroll to the “Loan Breakdown” section. You will be able to view loan servicers, type, and current interest rate. Loans owned by the “DEPT OF ED” are eligible for a 0% interest rate.
This dashboard also has many other features on loans and repayment plans, so get familiar with the functions now for use later!
Tuition Credits and Refunds
Now, let’s look at what your college may be doing for financial aid. As students know, many colleges moved online or even canceled classes starting in March 2020.
This abrupt change left students demanding a return on tuition – and some received it. This refund could be a lump sum payment on student loan debt or a savings investment for future semesters.
Many colleges remained in the virtual format and adjusted tuition to match the changes. Some colleges reduced or waived fees, like campus transportation or activities fees. Other schools charged fees, only to refund a portion of them later.
While this may not be a stable form of funds to depend on, keep an eye on announcements about possible refunds. The announcements will come from the office of the bursar or the school financial aid office.
Emergency Grants for Students
In March 2020, the CARES Act provided additional funding to colleges and emergency grants for eligible students. We’re talking billions in aid from the federal government for disbursement at the college level.
The purpose was to assist students with disruptions related to COVID-19. It might include relocating back to the United States from a study abroad program, housing, transportation, computers, supplies, and more. Tax-wise, the CARES grants are emergency assistance rather than scholarships or financial aid grants.
If you were not aware of the emergency aid back in March but experienced COVID-19 disruption related to school, talk to your financial aid office. Each school made a formula for disbursing the Emergency Cash Grant funding and may retroactively grant funding. The financial aid website should show details on eligibility and the amount of funds distributed thus far to how many students.
The grants are unique because they are cash payments that you can use at your discretion. But primarily, they are for education-related expenses. It means the school cannot apply CARES Act grant funds to an outstanding balance on your account, but you would not be ineligible to apply if you had an outstanding balance. The grants will also not detract from your current financial aid award or eligibility. Unlike loans, you will not have to pay this back.
Adjust Aid Awards and Loan Amounts
Something important to know about your federal financial aid award is that school financial aid offices typically will not adjust them automatically. If something reported on your most recent FAFSA form has changed, like the income of a parent, you have to inform the financial aid office of your college.
If you have a unique circumstance like this at any time while you are in college, reach out and ask for information on how to review your aid award. It might require documentation of the change, meeting with a financial aid officer, or completing forms. However, the review could increase grant or loan eligibility and help with school funding.
Revisit Loan and Grant Eligibility
Both federal student loans and grants have maximum lifetime limits, which is typically 150% of the published length of your program. For example, if you have a four-year course of study at your school, your maximum limit will be in six years. Once you hit the maximum amount, no additional loan is available from your school.
COVID-19 has led to many students taking time off or withdrawing. You can be eligible to have TEACH grants, Pell grants, or direct subsidized loans excluded from the lifetime limit when you take time off from school. It ensures your eligibility for loans and grants when you return to school will not be affected.
It is advisable to keep informed on your lifetime utilization so that you do not reach it before completing your studies. You can learn more about lifetime limits here.
Federal Work-Study Wages
When you submit your FAFSA form, you can indicate interest in a Federal Work-Study (FWS) position. This part-time position on the school campus gets funding from the federal government.
If denied for an FWS position, you can reach out to your financial aid office and request reconsideration. FWS wages do not have need repayment, unlike loans.
If you had an FWS position and lost wages due to COVID-19, you can contact your financial aid office to request back-pay on those lost wages. If your position had not yet started by March 13, 2020, you could see if your school has other campus-based aid funding to replace FWS wages lost from COVID-19.
Flexible Enrollment Options During COVID-19
With so much changing during the coronavirus, there could be many reasons why you would need flexible enrollment options from your school. Keep in mind the start to any financial assistance requires completing the FAFSA form and checking university policies on these flexible enrollment options.
Approved Leave of Absence
If you became ill from COVID-19 or something else, or your study abroad program was cut short, you may have had the opportunity to apply for a leave of absence from your school.
If your school granted this leave, your funding from that term could transfer to the next term. The specifics of this type of leave can vary based on your school, so reach out to the financial aid office for assistance.
Satisfactory Academic Progress
Those semesterly meetings with your academic advisor help ensure you maintain Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) towards your certificate or degree. Know that SAP can affect your ability to continue receiving financial aid from your school.
Elements of Satisfactory Academic Progress often include maintaining a minimum Grade Point Average (GPA), completing credits in a specific period, and other requirements. Your eligibility can change depending on your progress, an incomplete class, withdrawing from a class, or repeating classes.
Often, you can appeal a school’s decision regarding Satisfactory Academic Progress. The CARES Act accounts for this and has exceptions for students who failed to meet progress requirements based on COVID-19 interruptions or hardships.
If you failed to meet GPA requirements or complete enough credits due to COVID-19, talk to your financial aid office and explain.
Many students found coronavirus as a reason to transfer schools, often moving their academics closer to home. Your education is essential, so you want to find a quality school offering the courses you want.
You can utilize the Department of Education’s College Scorecard to search for schools. Select “Show Me Options” and “Schools Near Me” to search based on your location. You can also search based on courses of study.
Also, research how many of your current credits will count as transfer credits at the new school. If this is a temporary transfer, check with your school that credits at the new school will be accepted once you return to your current institution. You will want to confirm accepted transfer credits will meet the requirements of your major, not just general or elective credits.
Also, edit your FAFSA form to include the new school, so your details get sent there. The new college may offer a different financial aid package, which will be essential to consider.
Another option is delaying education entirely. A gap year or pause is not unheard of and is perfectly acceptable.
Many schools will allow you to defer acceptance or take a semester off without consequences. The best option here is to talk to the office of the registrar about postponing. If you have private scholarships, check and see if the funds can disburse in another term.
Repayment and Interest Charges
Finally, let’s talk about the federal level decisions on financial aid and loans. The U.S. government suspended federal student loan payments and interest charges until at least September 2021. This deadline has already shifted a few times, and lawmakers could push it back again.
If you are a current college student, you may feel there’s no need to worry about making payments right now. Student loan payments typically do not start until six months after graduation. However, if you have any unsubsidized federal loans for school, the interest accrual halt works in your favor.
Unsubsidized loans start accruing interest the second you receive them, so the COVID-19 freeze will keep your balance steady. If you can, use this freeze as an opportunity to make payments on the principal balance early. There is no penalty if you start paying school loans early as you are not under obligation to make regular payments yet.
The same may not be accurate for private student loan lenders. Each loan lender has its approach to school loans, so you will need to check with them directly. Most loan providers are flexible during these unprecedented times by offering either automatic loan forbearance or an option to request forbearance for loans.
The COVID-19 pandemic can make it overwhelming to navigate financial situations on top of everything else. The good news is that your support networks and structures are still in place, and they want to help you.
We seek to lower the barriers of access to education so you can pursue your education. Funding your university education is more than submitting your FAFSA form and accepting loans, and we provide the tools to understanding all elements of assistance.