The pandemic has affected most aspects of family life including financing a college education. Paying for college may look different now than it did before COVID-19. If you or someone you love is currently paying for college, you may feel overwhelmed. It can be hard to balance college expenses along with other financial strains associated with the pandemic. Researching financial aid options and how they have changed because of COVID-19 may be a way to ease your mind.

Changes in aid because of COVID-19

Financial aid options have changed to help students during the COVID pandemic. The government changed both loan repayment options and the 2021-22 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). At the onset of the pandemic, the U.S Department of Education reduced the loan interest rate to 0% and has extended it until Sept. 30, 2021. It also suspended payments on Department of Education owned loans. In addition, as of March 30, 2021, relief has been extended to federal student loans through the Federal Family Education Loan Program. The Federal Student Aid website offers up-to-date information on the coronavirus and forbearance options for students, borrowers, and parents at https://studentaid.gov/announcements-events/coronavirus.

Federal financial aid options

The first step in paying for college is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), available online at www.fafsa.gov. Be sure to access your FAFSA through the .gov webpage to avoid potentially fraudulent websites. The window to complete the FAFSA opens every Oct. 1 for the following academic year. It is best to complete it as soon as possible because many financial aid packages are awarded on a first-come basis. You need tax information from the previous year to complete a FAFSA, so have this information available before you file. Dependent children will need parental tax information. To simplify the application process, FAFSA provides the option to automatically load your tax information through the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Education has increased the income level for zero expected family contribution from $26,000 to $27,000. This means that households who have an income level below $27,000 will receive the maximum amount of aid possible. If you have previously completed FAFSA but have experienced significant financial changes because of COVID-19, you may update your FAFSA to reflect your current financial situation.

Private financial aid options

Another resource when seeking college funding is the financial aid department at the school you will attend. You can find information on how to contact a financial aid counselor or the financial aid department on your school’s webpage. A financial aid counselor can help you better understand financial aid packages on both federal and private levels. Financial aid counselors can connect you with scholarship opportunities, work-study programs, grants, and loans based on eligibility criteria.

Financial aid counselors may also be able to help you adjust payment plans or fees because of changes in income because of COVID-19. They can guide you in your school’s COVID-19 specific policies regarding financial aid. For example, many schools have adapted how your financial aid may carry over or be refunded in the event of a leave of absence or program cancellation because of the pandemic.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, provided more funding to eligible students to cover education-related expenses during the COVID-19 crisis such as tuition, living expenses, child care, supplies, and transportation. Financial aid counselors assisted students in determining eligibility for CARES funding during the 2021 school year. Completion of the 2021-22 FAFSA can allow you to be eligible if the government grants new funding.

Financial aid is likely to continue to undergo changes because of COVID-19. Staying in touch with a financial aid counselor and reading announcements from the Department of Education on www.ed.gov can help as you explore ways to pay for college during the pandemic.

References

Federal Student Aid. (2020). 6 Things Students Need to Know During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Emergency. Retrieved from https://studentaid.gov/articles/6-things-to-know-during-coronavirus/.

Kerr, Emma. (2020). What’s New on the 2021-2022 FAFSA. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/articles/whats-new-on-the-fafsa-this-year.

U.S. Department of Education. (2021). Cares Act: Higher education emergency relief fund. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/caresact.html.

Source: Nichole Huff, Ph.D., Assistant Extension Professor for Family Finances and Resource Management; and Morgann Kidwell, graduate student, Family Sciences.

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