Student News

COVID and the FAFSA: What Students, Parents Need to Know

Learn how to navigate the FAFSA in light of the Coronavirus epidemic.

Kathryn Knight Randolph

September 23, 2020

The effects of COVID-19 are far-reaching; it will even impact your FAFSA this year.
COVID and the FAFSA: What Students, Parents Need to Know
On October 1, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) becomes available for students to fill out for the 2021 – 2022 academic year. For students hoping to pay for college with financial aid, it is the document to fill out. This year, the FAFSA carries a lot more weight to it than in years’ past because of – you guessed it, the Coronavirus. Amidst the global pandemic, parents and students alike have lost jobs. Savings or assets have been greatly reduced or sold off in order to manage spending. More Americans are collecting unemployment benefits than ever. Looking for more COVID-19 student-impact information? Find it here. However, none of this will be reflected on a student’s FAFSA application. Which is crazy, right? But there is a logical explanation. The FAFSA asks for income and other financial information from the prior year. That means that the FAFSA will be collecting data points from 2019, the year we were not living through a pandemic and subsequent economic downturn. Naturally, many applications will reflect financial circumstances that do not accurately line up with the reality that students and their families are facing as they prepare for the next academic school year. According to a survey from Discover Student Loans, 48% of parents lost income as a result of the pandemic, and 44% stated that they couldn’t afford as much for college as they had originally intended. Furthermore, Discover Student Loans found that 26% of parents say they will be asking for a professional judgment on their financial aid package. With that, FAFSA applicants need to know how to navigate the FAFSA and post-application process.

Fill out the form.

Firstly, everyone should fill out the FAFSA this year, regardless of whether or not you believe you will qualify for financial aid. Stipulations, standards and financial circumstances will vary greatly over the next year. Even if both parents are employed right now, the same may not be true in a few months. Families need to prepare for every “what if,” and the best way to do that is to fill out the FAFSA. Having the form on file at the federal and state levels as well as at the college you plan to attend will make it easier to pull up in the event your need for aid must be reassessed.

Apply sooner, rather than later.

We always recommend that students fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1 to increase their chances of qualifying for financial aid; and this year, that is more necessary than ever. Though the FAFSA is a federal form, it is also used by states and colleges to determine state and institutional aid. Many states award financial aid on a first-come, first-serve basis. That means that filling out the form in October or November may lead to more financial aid than it would by waiting until April or May. Be sure to complete the form by your state's FAFSA deadline.

Fill out supplemental forms.

In addition to the FAFSA, colleges and universities across the country utilize supplemental forms, like the College Board’s CSS Profile, to get a more accurate picture of a student’s financial circumstances. These forms open up funding opportunities that may not be available through the FAFSA, provide a clearer picture of how a family can realistically pay for college, and explain any special circumstances that the college should know. You should check with each school to determine whether or not they use supplemental forms in awarding financial aid packages. If they do, find out which one, and be sure to submit it before the deadline in order to qualify for more financial aid.

Negotiate financial aid packages.

Once you have completed all of the necessary financial aid forms and applied to the colleges on your list, you’ll begin to receive admission decisions and financial aid packages. Before making your final decision, it’s important to compare offers. What a lot of students and parents don’t realize is that they can negotiate financial aid packages between colleges. You wouldn’t buy a car without haggling on the price, would you? The same is true of college. It’s a big purchase – and an even greater investment. If your top choice college did not provide the financial aid package you were hoping for, give the admissions office a call about the very generous package you received from another similar school. There is a chance your top choice school will give you more merit or financial aid.

Ask for a professional judgment.

Finally, this is very likely the least heard of – but most needed – advice for getting a good financial aid package, especially in light of the COVID-19 impact: you can ask your college for a professional judgment on your financial circumstances. A professional judgment takes place when a student, or their parents, ask the college to reevaluate their financial aid package because of a change in circumstances. Each college does this differently. They may ask for the details in an email, an application via their online portal, or scanned documents proving job loss, etc. Colleges across the country are expecting more professional judgments than ever this year. After all, the FAFSA will be asking for information from 2019 and won’t even touch on the effects that the pandemic has had to employment, bank accounts, and savings plans. If you feel that you deserve a professional judgment, ask for one. Once you have filed your case, follow up with the school to see if they received it. Every financial aid office at every college will, no doubt, be loaded with professional judgment cases. You don’t want yours to get lost among the masses.

Get the Financial Aid You Deserve

Just like we are living in unprecedented times, as we keep hearing, this will be an unprecedented FAFSA season. But as you’re navigating the college search and financial aid process, you need to be an advocate for yourself now, more than ever. Make sure you’re getting the most out of your FAFSA application and financial aid packages, and speak up when you believe you deserve more.

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