Complete your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), communicate with your college or university to make sure you’ve filled everything out correctly and gotten your forms in on time, and advocate for yourself at the state and federal level by keeping abreast of potential legislation that could alter your college access and affordability. These were the key pieces of advice listed this summer by members of UnidosUS’s online webinar Navigating the Financial Aid Process Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Sponsored by UnidosUS donor State Farm, the event was aimed at demystifying the college financial aid process and helping students and families to move through the system, especially in an era as challenging as this one.
For some, it feels daunting to complete these steps online or via text and phone calls, but it’s a necessary transition, and education advocates are ramping up their remote support, panelists said.
There hasn’t been a significant change in the number of students applying for financial aid, but applicants certainly have a lot more to consider, said Bernadette Astacio, senior director of internal training at uAspire, a nonprofit focused on providing information and resources to make college accessible and affordable to everyone.
“Students are thinking about how their college plans might change or how their college affordability outlook might change because of the pandemic,” she said.
And not surprisingly, the adjustments of the pandemic have led to a lot of confusion and a significant amount of missing or incomplete documentation, added panelist JoEllen Soucier, executive director of financial aid for Houston Community College.
“That’s causing delays in students getting awards quicker,” she said, but added, “Keep reaching out by phone, text, and email. We don’t want students to get discouraged. We want the students to receive aid just as much as they do. We will continue to evolve our services to students until we can open back up in person.”
She also noted that these disruptions to one’s educational and employment life cause lots of questions about how to put college on hold or slow the pace. But once again, she said do the FAFSA anyway and keep contacting financial aid advisors.
“You can be as low as one three-credit course and qualify for financial aid, so go ahead and apply. You never know,” Soucier noted.
Astacio agreed, adding that “many students and families may be eligible for more aid than they think they are.”
And panelists said even those who don’t think they qualify for federal aid should use the FAFSA anyway, because life can change, and besides, many universities use the form to make determinations about offering other kinds of financial aid.
“We know that circumstances are changing regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact, and even if you may not qualify right this moment for federal aid based on your FAFSA submission, if there is any sort of change in income or change in employment in your household maybe in October, maybe in November, it just makes the process quicker if you already have a FAFSA on file for you to advocate for yourself,” affirmed panel moderator Leticia Hart, UnidosUS’s associate director of education programs.
UnidosUS Education Policy Analyst Amanda Martinez reminded the audience that in addition to the pandemic, America is having an unprecedented public discussion around structural racism and the impact it has on equal access to education and careers. She wants students to communicate not just with their financial aid advisors, but with elected officials who are currently determining state and federal policies that could impact their students’ educational lives and prospects for paying down debt and earning a living thereafter. In other words, keep on top of the institutions that have historically perpetuated inequalities.
“You have to go toward the systems—you need to reach out to them if they’re not reaching out to you.”
Listed below are answers to questions about financial aid asked most frequently during the pandemic.
How will financial aid requirements and considerations change due to COVID-19?
Federal financial aid application processes and requirements have not and will not change as a result of COVID-19. The FAFSA and required documentation remains the same. Changes are made at individual institutions as to how a student or parent submits the required documents. Student and families should contact their college or university to obtain information on how to submit the requirements.
Can you please share the best resources to help undocumented students get aid for their college education?
First, the organization Immigrants Rising offers a list of scholarships that do not require proof of citizenship.
You should also check your state’s tuition equity laws and its financial aid offerings. State public colleges and universities may offer in-state tuition rates to undocumented students or students who have TPS or DACA, and they might provide other grants for students ineligible for federal aid based on their immigration status.
If you have a Social Security Number but are ineligible for federal aid, fill out the FAFSA anyway to jumpstart the financial aid process at the institutions you are considering. This opens the door for potential institutional aid. Undocumented parents can look into applying for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) and filing taxes every year. Last but not least, seek reputable legal counsel to see if you may be eligible for any remedies to legalize your status. This may open up eligibility for more financial aid now and in the future.
What are the effects on undocumented or justice-impacted students in states that require FAFSA as a high school graduation requirement.
States that require a FAFSA as a high school graduation requirement will have a process, such as a separate state financial aid application or an opt-out form.
I already applied for FAFSA, is it too late to adjust it if I now have more or better information?
If there has been a change in your family income from what was submitted in your FAFSA,you should not go into the FAFSA and change the financial information. Instead, you should request to provide this updated information directly to your college or university’s financial aid office and request a review of your updated data. This is typically called the special conditionsor special circumstancesprocess.
There is also a free tool, SwiftStudent, that will walk you through the documents and forms related to this appeals process. It helps students generate key materials they may need to provide to their college, and we would recommend using it. However, students should still consult with their financial aid office to ensure they’re following the exact steps and documentation needed for that particular institution.
What sources of funding are available for international students given that the CARES Act makes them ineligible?
First, you can apply to the scholarships listed on educational nonprofit website The Dream, which is focused on helping Dreamers get a higher degree.
But again, look into what’s happening in your state. For example, the California State Legislature recently provided a one-time general fund to support emergency financial aid for undocumented students in the University of California, California State University, and community college systems. California Governor Gavin Newsom’s higher education advisor Lande Ajose also noted that undocumented students who are over 18 can apply for $500 in relief from the state’s Disaster Relief Fund. Just remember that the money caps at $1,000 per household.
Besides the FAFSA, would you recommend filling out the College Scholarship Service Profile? Should a student choose only one?
The College Scholarship Service Profile or CSS Profile is a financial aid application that only some colleges and universities require. A full list of colleges requiring the form can be found here.
If required by your school, make sure to complete and submit it by your college’s deadline. But regardless of whether your school requires it, you should always fill out a yearly FAFSA and complete any other forms or tasks your financial aid office requires.
Will this info be provided at a later date in Spanish for parents?
While UnidosUS will not be recreating the webinar in Spanish, we are exploring creating a video in Spanish explaining the financial aid process and some of the information included in this webinar.