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By Mallika Mitra
Updated: August 26, 2020 11:24 AM ET
Pete Ryan for Money

When the surgery center where Maygin Hamilton works closed in March, she was scared. The single mother, who had recently paid off $16,000 in legal fees to win custody of her two daughters, wasn’t able to get into California’s unemployment system for three days.

On top of the strain of everyday financial pressures, there was another looming worry: How would they pay for her younger daughter’s upcoming first year in the University of Portland’s nursing program?

“I was thinking, ‘How long is this going to happen? How long are we going to have to rely on unemployment? What if unemployment runs out?” Hamilton says. “There’s a whole new set of worries and you don’t want to worry your children on top of all this.”

Even after unemployment benefits kicked in, and Hamilton and her older daughter, who also lost her job, started driving for Postmates to earn extra cash, Hamilton expected her college-bound daughter would likely need to take out about $20,000 in loans per year.

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Surveys of current and college-bound students and their families tell us that Hamilton’s worries are far from unique. About 13 million Americans are still out of work after the coronavirus started spreading through the U.S. in March. That loss of income has made it hard for families to pay for basic necessities, let alone the cost of a college education. And that cost can be huge — the annual sticker price for undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board runs about $20,000 at four-year public institutions and $43,100 at four-year private institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But it’s not just families who are strapped — colleges across the country are facing lower revenues and dwindling budgets, layoffs and a lot of uncertainty as they continue to figure out what school will look like in the fall. With all that, it might not occur to students or their families to ask for more money from their college.

Hamilton hadn’t thought about asking for more financial aid. But she is a member of several online groups about colleges and financial aid, including the Road2College’s Facebook group, Paying for College 101. She saw a post about other parents asking for additional aid, which gave her the push to do so.

“It hadn’t occurred to me,” Hamilton said. “I thought since this is something that’s happening across the country, colleges aren’t going to have more money to give out — they’re losing money.”

She’s not alone in asking for more financial aid. A survey by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) in June found that 47% of its member institutions saw an increase this year in the total number of requests for additional aid compared to the same period in 2019. And the overwhelming majority of the 293 institutions surveyed — 90% — said they anticipate an increase in such requests through the beginning of the fall semester.

Students need more money to pay college bills

The coronavirus-induced recession has caused concern for many of those paying for higher education. In March, NitroCollege.com found 55% of college-bound students in a survey said the pandemic has impacted their ability to pay for college. And in a June survey, Discover Student Loans found 68% of parents of college-bound students said they are worried about paying in the wake of the pandemic.

“The increased financial need is probably well into the tens of billions of dollars,” financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz says of the current situation.

A lot of different sources go into how a student and their family pay for college. One of the biggest sources is federal student aid, including grants that students don’t have to pay back, loans and work-study, where students work for the school to help cover their costs. Then there’s money from state-sponsored programs, scholarships from non-profits and private organizations, and help from the institution itself.

Much of that aid is based on a family’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which uses earnings from two years prior regardless of when you fill it out. That timing is crucial here: If someone has been laid off or had their wages cut during the pandemic, it won’t be represented in their aid from the federal government.

READ MORE: Money’S 2020-2021 BEST COLLEGES RANKINGS

In that case, students can request that a financial aid officer update their forms to reflect their current financial situation in a process known as “professional judgement.” After that, if a student is eligible for more federal aid, like the Pell Grant given to lower-income students, they’ll get it.

For institutional aid, though, the decision of whether to give more money stays with the school.

Nathan Lohr, associate director of financial aid and scholarship services at Indiana University–Purdue University in Indianapolis (IUPUI) said that in the middle of March, students started reaching out with financial concerns that were more short-term — but now their entire situations have changed, as have their requests.

“The conversation has really moved from, ‘I need help right now with my rent, utilities and food’ to more of a broader conversation about what options exist because there is such a drastic change to their financial situation,” Lohr says.

Often, it’s IUPUI students at the lowest income levels that have been most impacted by a loss of income, Lohr says. These students may have already received the maximum amount of financial aid from the federal or state government, so a loss of income appeal will not help them get additional money from those sources. Sometimes, students have seen a loss of income but not one that’s drastic enough to put them into a different eligibility range, he adds.

The University of Vermont, meanwhile, is experiencing a “huge increase in appeals” — 570 as of mid-August compared to 348 during the same time period last year. And they’re still coming in at high levels, says Marie Johnson, director of student financial services at the university. And Adelphi University in New York has seen “a significant increase” in requests for additional support and has conducted more than 670 individual counseling sessions to explore how students can handle their financial circumstances, says Kristen Capezza, vice president of enrollment management and university communications.

And colleges are trying to help

Many schools have used this as an opportunity to galvanize alumni into giving and creating emergency funds, says Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

At the historically Black university Virginia Union University, many of the students are first-generation and students of color, and they are already eligible for maximum federal aid like the Pell Grant, says Terrell Strayhorn, provost and senior vice president at the university. That means the college is trying to dig into its own pocket to get the students additional aid. But “our pockets are not as deep as some larger universities,” Strayhorn says, so that involves turning to alumni, foundations, philanthropists and members of the Richmond community, where the school is located.

Pérez says Beloit College in Wisconsin was early in its implementation of a plan to help students with the cost of the pandemic. The Beloit Action Plan, launched in April, included the Midwest Flagship Match, in which the school guarantees that students from six nearby states will pay tuition that’s the same or less than in-state tuition at the flagship public university in their home state. (For example, Beloit’s tuition is $52,858 for the 2020-21 school year, but for a student from Iowa, it would be just $9,830).

That gives prospective students from the midwest an idea of how much the price tag will be — and whether they can afford it — before applying for financial aid, says Leslie Davidson, vice president of enrollment at the college.

“In the current moment, people need clarity and people need certainty,” Davidson says.

It seems to be working. The college says appeals from incoming students were down a bit more than 10% this year, likely due to the flagship program and students receiving more generous aid packages to begin with.

Many of Beloit’s students pay their costs for the year through a payment plan that involves ten monthly installments, and the college’s new plan also allows those with extreme financial hardships due to the pandemic to qualify for skipping up to two of those payments. Finally, the college streamlined the process to ask for additional aid via the Student Emergency Aid fund. Students with extenuating circumstances (like loss of income or a health emergency caused by the pandemic) can apply for one-time grants rather than a permanent change to their funding.

Some of the funding for those changes come from the federal CARES Act, which gave about $14 million to colleges and universities.

Financial aid offices are swamped, but experienced

Handling the amount of financial aid appeal requests from students could be tripling the workload for financial aid offices, Kantrowitz says. While some colleges have a committee to make decisions, some have one person — and having staff work from home could be exacerbating the difficulty schools have in dealing with this, he adds.

Some colleges have shifted staffing to be more nimble, says Justin Draeger, president of NASFAA. That could look like creating a “one-stop-shop” to provide several layers of support (like financial aid, housing aid and a food pantry) or hiring third-parties to build out digital processes.

Lohr says IUPUI, for example, has a small team of staff members that usually review loss of income appeals. However, there are other financial aid staff members in the office who have worked on appeals in the past and are prepared to assist if the volume of appeals increases significantly.

Higher education institutions have, to some degree, seen this before.

“The good news for students and parents is — as warped as this sounds — schools do have experience with this largely because of the Great Recession,” Draeger says.

During that time, schools had to ramp up appeals and professional judgements as they are now.

Because financial aid data is often delayed several months, it’s hard to compare the amount of aid asked for then to now, and it’s not a good basis for comparison as college costs have gone up a lot since then, Kantrowitz says. Plus, nearly 9 million people lost their jobs during the Great Recession — a number 2020 has already far exceeded.

How to get more financial aid

If you, like Hamilton, need more financial assistance for you or your child’s education, experts say you should absolutely ask for it.

“The window is still very much open for families to appeal their financial aid award and ask for flexibility,” says Kevin Walker, CEO of CollegeFinance.com, which provides advice on how to reduce the cost of college.

He recommends preparing your case ahead of time, including documenting any hardship you or your family has faced so you can present it in an organized way. Use numbers whenever possible — even when making a specific request.

Ask, “Can you help us with another $2,500 dollars?” for example, and substantiate that number based on your inability to pay, he adds. That means telling them why you need the money (maybe unexpected health expenses caused by the coronavirus) and why you won’t have the money you usually do (like if mom won’t be getting her usual third-quarter bonus). Examples of documentation could be pay stubs to show reduction of income or unemployment paperwork to show job loss. If you are looking for a template for your appeals, SwiftStudent can provide guidance. The web-based financial aid appeal service provides free customized template appeal letters.

READ MORE: Money’S 2020-2021 BEST COLLEGES RANKINGS

For first-year students, the financial aid office should definitely be the first point of contact, but also be in touch with the admissions counselor who worked with you through the application and acceptance process, Pérez says. Most students don’t realize that the counselor works as their advocate through the admissions and financial aid process, he adds.

And remember, schools are struggling too, so be empathetic, and don’t assume they have tons of resources they’re withholding, Walker says.

“Almost every college will feel a pinch,” he adds. “Being respectful of their position in the negotiation will help.”

Basically: ask.

“Always check in with your financial aid office even if you think there is no financial aid available,” Draeger says. “It’s all going to be dependent on the school.”

For Hamilton, asking worked. After having her daughter write to explain their situation, the University of Portland responded within three days with an offer of $3,000 more per year in aid.

“That’s a pretty big burden taken off my shoulders,” Hamilton says. “We definitely learned that it does not hurt to ask.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Kevin Walker’s name.

More from Money:

The 739 Best Colleges in America, Ranked by Value

College and the Black Lives Matter Movement: How to Find a School That Values Diversity and Antiracist Policies

Why Isn’t Tuition Lower if Most College Classes Are Online? Good Question

Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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