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Rangely Garcia / Money

For millions of students with parents suddenly out of work, paying for college just got a whole lot harder, especially when considering the need to borrow additional money. The financial aid forms you filled out in the fall — or even in February — don’t capture the effects of this spring’s pandemic.

Luckily, students can request updated awards by submitting a special circumstances appeal to their college’s financial aid office. If your family has experienced a significant financial change, coronavirus-related or not, financial aid experts say you should contact your school’s office. Here’s how to do it.

Make Sure Your FAFSA is Filed

First things first: a college can’t revise your financial aid if you haven’t filed the proper forms, says John Falleroni, senior associate director of financial aid at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Every school requires the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), and some private colleges also use a form called the CSS Profile. These financial aid forms determine your "expected family contribution" using tax information from two years earlier. After they’re filed, colleges have the ability to exercise "professional judgement" and revise your EFC if you’re able to document measurable differences.

Keep in mind, you must still use your 2018 tax return, even if your earnings were widely different than your current finances — that’s where the appeal process comes in.

Ask Your Financial Aid Office About Its Process

Every college has an established process for filing an appeal. Learn about yours by checking online or contacting the financial aid office. Look for required forms and a list of acceptable documents to verify your situation.

Some colleges may have an appeal form designed specifically for the pandemic. The University of Washington is developing a separate appeal form that provides details for filing due to a coronavirus loss that should be easier to complete, says Kay Lewis, executive director of financial aid at the UW. Students can choose the regular form or the coronavirus-specific form, whichever best fits their situation.

If a college’s form doesn’t capture your circumstances completely, you should include a short letter explaining your situation, says Vicki Beam, founder of Michigan College Planning. “The financial aid office is looking for facts," she says. "I encourage students to detail any financial items they can, but students should definitely paint a picture of what is going on.”

For guidance, SwiftStudent, a new web-based financial aid appeal service launched in April, provides free customized template appeal letters for different scenarios. The website walks students step-by-step through the process of requesting additional aid and may be especially helpful if your school doesn’t have a formal appeal form.

Gather Pertinent Documents

Supporting documents will vary, depending on your situation, but they could include a parent’s proof of unemployment benefits, final pay stub, termination letter, or medical or childcare bills. If you’re not sure, ask the financial aid office.

Falleroni cautions that a parent collecting unemployment benefits doesn’t automatically mean income has changed substantially enough for an award revision. “A temporary furlough, unemployment benefits, plus the extra $600 per week might not mean a big drop in family finances,” he says.

Understand the Types of Available Money

It’s hard to predict whether your request will be approved. There are no recent publicly available statistics about how many financial aid appeals are accepted. And if you are successful, how much additional financial aid you can expect is highly individual, dependent on your need and what your college has to offer. A small number of colleges are able to meet all of the financial need of their students. But most have a finite budget for scholarships and grants.

Even if your college has given out all of its institutional financial aid, some schools have started fundraising campaigns for additional money to help defray costs for students with unexpected financial need this year. West Virginia University recently launched a new campaign to raise unrestricted scholarship funds for the upcoming year. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Covid-19 Emergency Relief Fund, launched last month, extends to fall housing, tuition, and other costs.

Federal financial aid, on the other hand, is available nearly anytime during the academic year for eligible students. This includes Pell grants for low- and moderate-income students, and low-cost student loans.

If an aid administrator revises your expected family contribution to reflect your current finances, you may fall within the range to qualify for a partial or full Pell grant. A full-time student with an EFC of $5,711 or less will get some level of Pell funding next year—the exact amount depends on your level of need and the cost of your program. But if your EFC is already at $0, then your Pell grant won’t be increased beyond the 2020-21 maximum of $6,345.

While nearly all students qualify for unsubsidized federal student loans, a lower EFC can also give you access to subsidized federal loans. Those are reserved for students with financial need, typically determined by having an EFC that’s lower than the cost of attendance. Subsidized loans don’t accrue interest while you’re in school, saving you hundreds of dollars a year compared with unsubsidized loans. (Note that most federal student loans, including unsubsidized ones, have a 0% interest rate until the end of September.)

Finally, you might get state aid if your state’s financial aid budget hasn’t been depleted. Many states have spring FAFSA deadlines for calculating state aid, but some have extended theirs, including Delaware, Kansas, Nebraska, and New Jersey. California colleges are encouraging students to file appeals to determine if their eligibility for the Cal Grant has changed. And Washington state awards the Washington College Grant, which is based on a college’s cost and your family’s size and income, as needed throughout the academic year.

Consider the Timing of Your Request

The pandemic is creating exceptionally fluid situations for many families, experts say. If your parent’s job is in limbo and you can’t provide solid information right now on the school form, you might need to wait until your situation becomes clearer, Lewis says. Normally, she doesn’t recommend waiting, but in the case of the coronavirus, it might be necessary to hold off until, say, early summer, when states are more fully open and job prospects more evident. It's a balancing act of gaining solid information about your finances while not missing out on available money.

Colleges are hesitant to make big changes to a student’s EFC with only a month or two of job information, Lewis says. But if your family has already experienced a few months of job loss, that’s enough time for financial aid offices to project a new family contribution with your income decrease. If your situation is still fluid, you haven’t lost out. Schools accept special circumstances appeals throughout the year, so you can submit one after your situation solidifies.

However, if your situation is clear now—for instance, a parent has been laid off permanently—submit your appeal as soon as possible since some types of aid are limited. If an incoming freshman isn’t comfortable committing to a college without an updated financial aid award, you should also submit your appeal now with a best estimate of your long-term financial impact, Lewis says.

Explore Other Sources of Money

Once your appeal is in, follow up to make sure the financial aid office has everything it needs from you to avoid delays in the process. Then be prepared to wait. The turn-around varies by school, anywhere from two to eight weeks, experts say. Some schools are still fielding emergency requests for spring term and haven’t had time to process appeal letters for the fall, Lewis says.

Whether you’ve already filed an appeal or anticipate filing in the future, search now for additional sources of money. Upper division students can check with their departments for scholarships in their area of study. Check with local organizations and alumni groups as well.

Since special circumstance appeals apply to need-based aid, incoming freshman can also ask the admissions office about the possibility of additional merit aid if the school offers it, especially if you can demonstrate improved test scores or grades.

Come fall, check with your school again to learn about money from donations and coronavirus fundraising campaigns.

“Who knows what will be available next school year, but students should check,” Lewis says.

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