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Financial aid is essential for the vast majority of college students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 85% of first-time undergraduate students seeking a degree or certificate were awarded financial aid during the 2016-17 school year.
But how much financial aid you qualify for depends largely on your family's financial situation. And if your situation has changed drastically due to the financial crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be wondering how that impacts your ability to qualify for scholarships, grants, work-study and student loans.
Whether or not you've filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or College Scholarship Service (CSS) profile, here are some steps students and parents can take to get financial help for the 2020-21 school year.
What to Do if You've Already Filled Out Financial Aid Applications
The FAFSA helps your school's financial aid office determine how much federal aid you need in the form of grants, work-study and student loans. If you're also looking for non-federal financial aid, the CSS profile is used by more than 400 colleges and scholarship programs to provide more assistance.
The deadline for the FAFSA isn't until June 30, but you may have already submitted yours. The deadline for your CSS profile can vary between January 1 and March 31, depending on your school.
How much financial aid you qualify for depends largely on your expected family contribution (EFC) calculated by the FAFSA. If that's changed dramatically since you filled out both applications due to COVID-19, you may be wondering how to get the increased financial aid you need for the upcoming school year.
Fortunately, you may have some options to inform your school about the changes that have happened in your life, such as you or a parent being laid off or furloughed, or losing wages due to a death or illness.
- FAFSA: In general, financial information can't be updated directly on the FAFSA because it must be accurate as of the day you first signed the form. However, if your family's financial status has changed, you can reach out to your school's financial aid office to explain the situation.
- CSS profile: Updating your CSS profile with your family's new financial situation may be as easy as printing out a copy of the profile you submitted, handwriting the changes directly on the form, then uploading it to your account or submitting it to your college's financial aid office via fax or mail. However, processes can vary by school, so call your financial aid office to find out what you need to do.
In both scenarios, you may need to provide documentation to show how your EFC has changed since you first submitted the forms. Ask the representative from your school to find out what you need.
If you've already received your award letter for next year, you can file an appeal with your school's financial aid office.
What to Do if You Haven't Filled Out the FAFSA Yet
When filling out the FAFSA for the 2020-21 school year, you'll be asked to provide income information and tax returns from 2018.
If that data doesn't reflect your current situation, however, the U.S. Department of Education recommends you contact your school's financial aid office after you submit your FAFSA form to explain your current situation and have them use it to inform their decision.
How to Request More Financial Aid for the Current School Year
The FAFSA and CSS profile can help your school determine how much financial aid you need for the upcoming school year. But if you need more assistance now, you may have some options.
Most important, if you're currently in school and your professors have moved to an online format, it's essential to continue to participate in classes and coursework to remain eligible for financial aid during the current school year and in the future. Here's what you can do:
- Request emergency federal aid. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides more than $6 billion to colleges and universities, which they can give as emergency cash grants to students whose lives and finances have been disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis. Call your school's financial aid office to see if you qualify.
- Ask to keep work-study income. If you're a current recipient of the work-study program, you may no longer be able to work your scheduled hours because of coronavirus-related interruptions. However, your school still has the option to find other ways to allow you to work your scheduled hours or simply pay you for the time you'd normally work. Contact your work-study office to find out what measures it can take to allow you to maintain your income.
- Ask for a refund. If your school has canceled classes or told you to leave your on-campus dorm room, you may be able to request a full or partial refund of tuition or room and board charges. Just don't expect to get your money back if classes have moved online, even if you find it less effective.
Do I Need to Borrow More Money?
Scholarships, grants and work-study programs are all forms of financial aid, and depending on the changes to your FAFSA or CSS profile, you may qualify for more aid in these areas than you normally would.
However, the increases may not be enough to bridge the gap between your costs for next year and what you can afford. If that's the case, you may need to borrow money in the form of student loans.
Before you do so, make sure you've exhausted all other options. Research scholarship opportunities with your school, and visit websites like Scholarships.com and Fastweb to see if you qualify for scholarships and grants from private organizations.
If you still need money, focus on federal student loans first. The U.S. Department of Education offers subsidized loans to students with financial need. The federal government pays your interest on these loans while you're enrolled in school at least half-time, during the six-month grace period after you leave school or fall below half-time enrollment, and during deferment periods in the future.
Even if you don't qualify for enough subsidized loans to cover your remaining expenses, unsubsidized federal loans don't require a credit check and may provide lower interest rates than what a college student could get with private student loans.
Borrowing money for college isn't ideal, but it can make it possible for you to stay in school.
For Any Questions, Contact Your School's Financial Aid Office
Many financial aid decisions are made by your school, not the federal government. So while there's a wealth of information on the U.S. Department of Education's website, call your college's financial aid office if you have questions about your specific situation.
While a global pandemic creates a lot of uncertainty and well-founded fear, universities have been empowered to make decisions and provide assistance to students who really need it to help them remain in school.