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Struggling with College Expenses? Reach Out to the Financial Aid Office

Billie Jo Weis


Many families think the financial aid process ends once a student accepts a financial aid package and enrolls in college.

In fact, contacting a school’s financial aid office can help a student stay in school when that package turns out not to be enough. This is especially important now as families cope with the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a report on educationdata.org, money is the most common reason students drop out of college. In 2017, more than 38 percent of students cited financial pressure as the main reason for discontinuing their studies, far exceeding the second most common reason, “academic disqualification” (28 percent).

Although colleges and universities across the country have shut down campuses due to COVID-19 and transitioned to remote learning, admissions and financial aid staff are still working. Both prospective and committed incoming students as well as returning students and their parents can visit the colleges' website for financial aid assistance, answers to questions, and to report changes in financial circumstances that might merit additional aid.

The First Step: Complete the FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) deadline for the current academic year (2019–2020) is June 30, 2020. Most current high school seniors applied for financial aid for next year, 2020–2021, when they applied for admission, and the priority deadline for financial aid at many schools has already passed.

Given the rapidly developing COVID-19 health and financial crisis, it is more important than ever to fill out the FAFSA, even if you don’t think your student will qualify for need-based aid — just to be on the safe side and make sure you aren't leaving any source of financial assistance behind. Many schools will use the FAFSA to assess merit aid as well as to make other financial aid decisions that may not be obvious to the student's family.

Even though the FAFSA for the 2020–2021 school year uses numbers from 2018 federal income tax returns, families may have grounds for an appeal if they have experienced any financial distress since 2018, including any impact from the COVID-19 pandemic.

As student need for financial aid is sure to increase for the coming academic year, institutions may find themselves short on revenue

revenue due lower freshman enrollment, shrinking endowment funds due to the drop in the stock market, and the anticipated loss of international student tuition payments. Nevertheless, if your family is struggling to pay tuition or other education-related expenses, reaching out to the financial aid office might give your student the boost they need to stay in school.

Here are a few ways the financial aid office can help.

1. Restructure an award if financial circumstances have changed.

If your family’s financial circumstances have changed, a school can often restructure a student’s financial aid package to make up for the family’s loss in income. This applies to both current and prospective students. There is no time limit on appeals.

Reasons for an appeal typically include a job loss, unexpected medical expenses, illness that affects the ability to work, the death of a parent or (for prospective students) if another comparable school your child is considering attending has offered a more attractive financial aid package.

With the current health and financial crisis, other reasons to appeal may include a decline in 529 funds due to the drop in the stock market, loss of job or wages due to a shelter-in-place order, or the financial burden of suddenly caring for relatives. Consult the school’s website for their specific process of appealing an award.

Because of the coronavirus, quite a few schools have delayed their deadlines for prospective students to accept an offer of admission and make a deposit from the traditional May 1 to June 1st or later. Since many colleges have trouble meeting their freshman enrollment goals, this can give students more time to negotiate a better financial aid package. Simply let the colleges know you are not sure you can afford the cost.

2. Add a work-study option.

Work-study jobs are suspended for students now studying remotely, but as soon as students return to campus, this will once again be a way to help students meet expenses. (Note: Campuses closed due to the coronavirus pandemic are not required to continue paying work-study students, but they are allowed to and many are. The funds from the federal government can’t be used for anything else.)

Just because your child’s original financial aid package didn’t come with a work-study option doesn’t mean they won’t qualify for one once they are on campus. Not everyone offered work-study accepts it, so the school may have surplus funds to offer your student. The income from a work-study job can help your child cover expenses like food and books. As a bonus, unlike other part-time jobs, the money your student earns from work-study employment won’t factor in to your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) when you fill out the FAFSA for the following year.

3. Offer an emergency or short-term loan.

If a need is immediate and your student just needs money to cover a one-time expense or shortfall, they might talk to their financial aid office about an emergency or short-term loan. Both loans are interest-free but need to be paid back in a short amount of time, typically 30 to 60 days, and come with a processing fee.

An emergency loan typically covers unexpected expenses while a short-term loan is restricted to education expenses, such as tuition. Either might be a good option in cases where a student needs to pay tuition to register for classes before their financial aid is finalized.

Because of the loans’ short-term nature, students should only rely on these options if they know they have money coming in to pay them back on time. If they fail to repay these loans by the deadline, a school can place their registration on hold and the student may have to pay interest when they do eventually pay off the loan.

The stimulus package recently passed by Congress has put a six-month freeze on student loan payments as well as halting any interest that may accrue. This automatic freeze is in effect until September 30, 2020. Visit the Department of Education’s website for details.

4. Offer a grant.

Schools want to keep good students. If your child has a strong GPA but is struggling to pay for school, the financial aid office may offer them a grant — money that they can apply to tuition and other education or living expenses. The amount will depend on your financial circumstances, your student’s GPA and how much money the school has left in their fund for that academic year.

If a student’s need isn’t immediate, they can explore options on their own such as scholarships offered through the school specific to their major or outside scholarships. Keep in mind, though, that an outside scholarship can impact a student’s financial aid, reducing the package their school offers.

Consulting a college financial expert can also help families sort through their options and prepare for conversations with a school’s financial aid office. Some companies offer free workshops for parents at local libraries and other community locations (events that may go online during this season of coronavirus stay-at-home orders). Having a professional guide your family can make the process easier and save you money.

College is expensive, but families who do their homework can find ways to keep it from busting their budgets.

Remember, it’s in a school’s best interest to remove financial barriers for your student. Once a student is enrolled at a school, the school wants to do what it can to keep that student on a path to graduate. Think of a trip to the financial aid office as the first step to making that happen.

Billie Jo Weis is a CPA and client services advisor for My College Planning Team in the Chicago area, where she creates customized college funding plans to help parents pay for higher education, monitoring each client’s progress until all of their children are out of college. Billie Jo received her BA in accounting from San Jose State University and has over 20 years of experience in accounting and finance.

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