COVID-19 Financial Aid Changes for Currently-Enrolled Students

Sage Crary
Sage Crary
Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships; pursuing an M.S. in Ethics and Religion
Block letters spelling out ‘financial help.’

The COVID-19 global pandemic is something that most of us have never experienced. The economic impacts and the changes to our education system are something that we may likely be feeling for months or even years from now. Virtually on a daily basis, new relief measures towards students either currently or formerly enrolled are coming out from Capitol Hill, and I don’t expect them to stop anytime soon.

There is a recent shift in Washington that is now allowing and encouraging bills focused on providing key financial relief strategies to the American population to emerge. There are currently dozens of bills with a variety of relief strategies under debate, and these are set to continue for the foreseeable future.

Undoubtedly you are experiencing some of the effects of COVID-19. Whether it’s in your personal classroom as an educator or as a student yourself who is now likely transitioning to an online format, we have all felt it. This article is geared towards students who are currently enrolled in a college or university and what financial aid options and new laws have been put into effect as of March 22, 2020 to provide support to you.

Some of these relief measures may or may not apply to you directly based on your current enrollment status (a.k.a. how many credits you are taking), your personal financial status, and what types of aid you are receiving. Additionally, there is some flexibility for each school on how these relief efforts are administered, so it is possible that your school may implement some of these slightly differently than below. However, this is a starting point for you as a recipient of Federal Student Aid to know that there are options and relief in sight, even if the world feels a bit chaotic right now.

COVID-19 Relief Efforts

On March 5, 2020, the US Department of Education (ED) announced the first of a series of efforts for schools and students impacted by COVID-19. These first relief efforts are summarized below:

Students Living On Campus or in Residential Housing at a School that Closes the Physical Campus

For students who have been forced to relocate from their university or college-sponsored housing as a result of campus closures, schools will be refunding students an appropriate amount (to be determined by each school independently) for unused room and board charges. Since your financial aid eligibility is based on a set of charges that you are scheduled to accrue, under normal circumstances your financial aid would be reduced prior to the refund of housing and board charges. In essence, under ‘normal’ times, if you were scheduled to pay $5,000 in housing and board charges, but then it changed, we would also have to reduce your financial aid by up to $5,000.

So while your total charges and amount owed would be reduced, you also would not be eligible for a refund or check in your pocketbook. However, under the new guidance, ED is allowing schools that are reducing housing and board charges as a result of campus closures to not adjust your financial aid, thus enabling all reduced charges to essentially be refunded back to you in the form of a check or payment. The goal of this is to give cash on hand to students who may now need to secure new housing arrangements.

Students Currently Employed at their College or University Under Federal Work Study

Federal Work Study allows students to work on campus and earn a paycheck for doing so just like any other employee. That means that if the college or university campus closes, you would not be able to work, therefore not earn a paycheck. ED has announced that it will allow a one-time change to the regulations, which allows schools to choose to pay Federal Work Study students their wages even if they are not able to work as a result of COVID-19 closures. This one-time change is optional for schools to partake in, so each school is likely to vary in whether or not or how they choose to implement this.

While the allowance is only for students who are working a Federal Work Study job, many schools are expanding this to all student workers, regardless of their funding source. So it is highly possible that if you are working on your college or university and it is forced to close that you may still be eligible for your earnings for the rest of the semester. Check with your campus supervisor or student employment office to see how your school is planning to handle student work earnings.

Veterans Benefits under the GI Bill Program

If you are a recipient of VA Benefits, these benefits cannot typically be used for online courses unless your school is approved to do so. Since many schools have been forced to adopt online courses unexpectedly, the Veterans Association has temporarily allowed an expansion to their rules and will not take away GI Bill Funding for students whose courses are moved to an online format beyond their control.

There are also several more bills pending on Capitol Hill that are focused specifically on financial resources for enrolled students; while they are not yet approved, we have every reason to expect that they will be in the coming days. So please stay tuned for more information as this continues to evolve. And also, always know that each financial aid office understands how challenging this time is for students. So while many of us are simultaneously adapting to our new remote working realities and challenges, we also are here to serve you as best we can. If you ever feel overwhelmed, unsure, or need financial support during this time, always reach out to your financial aid department as you never know what options they may have for you.

Update as of 03/31/2020 – New Changes

While the idea of either going back to graduate school or starting graduate school during a global pandemic may sound daunting, it is actually the best time in recent years to attend school as a result of the CARES Act. The CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act) was signed into legislation on March 27, 2020, and committed over 14 billion dollars in funding for colleges and universities across the country, a minimum of 50% of which must be given out to both undergraduate and graduate students in the form of relief grants.

This is free money that will not need to be paid back to help offset lost wages and provide financial incentives for students. This emergency funding will be awarded by the financial aid department and can be used for any expenses that a student may incur such as tuition, fees, room, board, transportation, or childcare costs. This funding is to be used for both graduate and undergraduate students, but how the school chooses to allocate it is the individual decision of each institution. Additionally, schools that participate in the Federal Campus Based Programs are temporarily allowed to use Federal Supplemental Opportunity Grant (FSEOG Grant) funding for graduate students as well as undergraduate students.

For more information on these relief grants, and other additional financial incentives for students during the months ahead, you should contact the financial aid office at your school. However, please be advised that it is likely to be a month or more before schools know how much funding they will receive and how they are going to allocate it.

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