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In These New Times

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Originally printed in U.S. News

In normal times, colleges and universities in the U.S. couldn’t simply flip a switch to become virtual learning institutions and continue to provide students federal financial aid without proper approval. But these are not normal times, as more than 100 institutions – and counting – have canceled in-person classes in an attempt to slow the spread of the new coronavirus COVID-19 disease.

“One flexibility a lot of institutions are using is the ability to switch from in-person classes to distance ed and not have to go through all of those approval processes. They can just make that change right now in the middle of the term,” says Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

“If an institution chooses that option, those students are fully eligible for the financial aid they have received and there will not be those financial aid disruptions there would be if the institution completely closed,” she says.

Despite this guidance, the chaos that has ensued following the unprecedented campus closures and class cancellations has hit financial aid departments as they attempt to address student questions and concerns. More answers and flexibility in federal financial aid may come in emergency legislation, McCarthy says.

“There are unaddressed issues that the Department of Education doesn’t have the authority to be flexible on; those are issues for Congress.”

Last Thursday, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington introduced the Supporting Students in Response to Coronavirus Act, which includes $1.2 billion in emergency financial aid funding “to students in higher education to help address basic needs created by unexpected college closures and COVID-19 related disruptions, including food, housing, health care, and child care needs,” a fact sheet provided by NASFAA reads.

Students Face Unanticipated Costs as Campuses Close

As colleges pulled the plug on in-person classes in mid-March, some institutions also asked students to vacate campus in a matter of days. The move raised questions about room and board payments that had already been made by families and caused some backlash as students struggled to purchase last-minute flights and, in some cases, hire movers or find storage facilities for their belongings.

These costs can be particularly hard on low-income students, and on international students without nearby support.

Current Students in Most Cases Keep Their Financial Aid

Current students who continue their courses online due to canceled in-person classes will maintain their eligibility for federal financial aid.

However, not all courses can be easily translated – if at all – to online courses, such as labs and clinical practicums. Such classes may be canceled, and if a student drops down to part-time enrollment status, he or she may lose federal financial aid eligibility.

“Colleges are scrambling to try to figure out how to maximize distance education and do it wherever possible, but there are some classes where it’s just not feasible in any way,” McCarthy says. “If that is the case and the student’s enrollment status does change, that is one area where the Department of Ed doesn’t have flexibility in terms of keeping you classified as a full-time student in order to keep the aid you are eligible for.”

The Education Department has not yet fully addressed the financial aid outlook for admitted students planning to enroll in fall 2020 classes and students planning to take summer classes.

“These instructions do not contemplate accommodations for students who have not yet enrolled or whose term has not yet begun, with certain exceptions,” the department’s March 5 notice reads. “We will continue to monitor the situation and make a later determination of what accommodations may be necessary should longer-term interruptions become likely.”

Some Students May Receive More Financial Aid

In cases where a parent loses his or her employment as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, financial aid administrators may be able to adjust and thereby increase a student’s aid.

“The use of professional judgment where students and/or their families have been affected by COVID-19 is permitted, such as in the case where an employer closes for a period of time as a result of COVID-19,” guidance from the Education Department reads.

Department of Education Ensures Work-Study Payments

Affected students who rely on federal work-study can anticipate receiving that aid even as they may be learning off campus through virtual classrooms or their campuses are closed.

“If the college closes such that the student can no longer work their federal work-study job or their off-campus employer closes and they’re not able to work those hours, the Department of Education says so long as the student started work, they can pay the student,” Kantrowitz says.

“But this guidance didn’t say how the colleges will pay students,” he adds, and payment may vary depending on a student’s typical work schedule and other factors.

Resources for Financial Aid and Other Programs

For information and guidance regarding several topics including financial aid, merit-based programs and target work forces visit Washington Student Achievement Council’s financial aid page.

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