Appeals for financial aid rise as students face pandemic hardships


By Vanessa Arredondo, CalMatters

UCLA student Dulce Jimenez did not file a federal student aid application for the 2020-21 school year; she was about to graduate in the spring and thought the days of worrying about paying for her education would be over. But then the coronavirus pandemic struck. Jimenez found herself dropping out of a class and then having to catch up with it over the summer – just when her parents’ working hours had been cut.

Paying for a class out of pocket would add financial stress to his family, Jimenez said. “I’m worried that I will have to pay my school fees because things are really tight for my parents so they couldn’t help me,” she said.

Jimenez therefore urged UCLA to review its financial aid, becoming one of a growing number of University of California and California State University students appealing to their aid programs. as their families grapple with the economic fallout from COVID-19. Officials from both universities say appeals for financial aid are on the rise system-wide, with particularly dramatic increases on some campuses. By the end of the spring term, UC Riverside students had filed twice as many appeals for financial aid as the year before. At UCLA, director of financial aid Ina Sotomayor said requests for additional funding for the fall were already up 36%.

Many students who file appeals face unemployment. About 71% of returning students to California say they have lost some or all of their income due to the pandemic, according to a recent report investigation of 76,000 students by the California Student Aid Commission. Thirty-four percent say they will have to work more in the fall to pay for their education and living expenses, while 21% think they should attend a cheaper college.

State, federal, and institutional financial aid covers the tuition costs of most low-income California students. But that money doesn’t always cover living expenses, and federal aid isn’t available for undocumented and international students. UC and CSU financial aid officials say they are reviewing and adjusting rewards earlier than usual and are tapping into emergency and donor funds to try and fill in the gaps.

“Since the start of the spring term, we have heard more and more stories about students whose parents have lost their jobs, students who are going to have difficulty paying for the fall term,” said Patrick Register. , director of UC Santa Cruz. Office of Financial Aid and Awards.

Colleges and universities in California typically allow a student to apply for financial aid if their actual tuition costs exceed what the school budgeted for or if their family’s circumstances change. Appealing involves submitting evidence of additional need and can be confusing for students at times, said Abigail Seldin, CEO of the Seldin / Haring-Smith Foundation. The non-profit foundation has created an online tool, SwiftStudent, which guides students through the process.

“There are a lot of people out there who are in tough situations, and there isn’t a lot of advice on what they should be doing,” Seldin said.

Launched in April, SwiftStudent offers call letter templates and tips for sticky situations, like asking aid workers to ignore your parents’ income if they don’t contribute to your education.

Not all students have an interest in appealing. Those whose expected family contribution is already set at zero – which means the federal government has decided that their family earns so little that they cannot contribute to the student’s studies – will not be eligible for further assistance. unless the cost of their education goes up.

But these students are still often asked to pay a “self-help” contribution towards their studies, usually by working or taking out loans. At UC Berkeley, that amount recently ranged from $ 7,000 to $ 10,000 per year and is based on student needs and the financial aid budget that year, the aid director said. financial Cruz Grimaldo.

“There is always a gap. There are always more needs than resources, ”she said.

Closing this gap becomes more difficult for students during a pandemic, with fewer jobs available. “We are concerned that students who earn less money will feel like they have no choice but to take out loans and / or drop out of school,” said Emelia Martinez, director of partnerships at Rise, a student advocacy group.

Some campuses where a large portion of the student body has an expected family contribution of zero have not seen an increase in appeals for financial aid.

“For a lot of students, a call doesn’t help them at all,” said Kelly Russell, director of financial aid at California State University Fresno, where 80 percent of students receive some form of aid.

Colleges are also adapting to students with different types of financial needs than before the pandemic. The University of Southern California initially said it would not include housing costs in financial aid programs in the fall amid uncertainty over the return of students to campus, the Daily Trojan reported. But after student outcry, the university created a $ 4,000 per semester “home study grant” for students who choose to live off campus with their families.

Some students who receive financial aid feel they need to redirect money intended for education spending to help their family finances, Grimaldo said.

“So much has changed in the past 60 days,” she said. “Our students want to support their siblings or their parents or their grandparents or their children. We face certain federal and state regulations that allow us to support students, but not necessarily other members of their families.

Lillian Romero, a psychology and education student at UC Riverside, said it had been difficult to balance her education costs with her family’s needs. Her mother has struggled to find stable employment since 2017, she said, and the pandemic has made that search more difficult. To save money on rent, she, her mother and sister all moved into a single room in a family member’s house.

Although Romero’s expected family contribution is officially zero, she has had to take out loans to fully cover her expenses. A work-study program on campus failed when the coronavirus hit. His family agreed to save his financial aid money to cover his accommodation when he returned to campus. But Romero said going into debt during an economic crisis was stressful.

“I’m worried about how paying off the loans with the help of my family will hurt my family’s chances of moving and paying the medical bills,” she said.

The federal CARES law strengthened campus financial aid budgets; California’s public colleges and universities have received more than $ 680 million to distribute in student grants, broken down into increments of $ 150 to about $ 2,000. Colleges have also sought help from private donors – UC Berkeley has raised $ 1 million in donations for emergency grants to undocumented and international students. But some financial aid officers said they were concerned about meeting the needs if colleges did not receive another round of federal stimulus funding.

UC Davis director of financial aid Deborah Agee said she encourages students with unmet need to take out loans, noting that the student default rate on campus is less than 2% . “I like to remind students that you need this money to complete your education. You should take it, ”she said.

Student loan debt in the United States is currently reaching over $ 1.6 trillion, more than auto loan debt and credit card debt. Average student debt for a California borrower was $ 22,585 in 2018, according to The Institute for College Access and Success, an Oakland-based nonprofit. The federal government estimates this debt will take an average of 20 years to pay off – although some researchers have found that when students borrow less than they are entitled to, their the notes suffer.

Uncertainty surrounds another key element of financial aid: the federal work-study program, which provides subsidized jobs to students. Some students lost their only source of income this spring when off-campus jobs at nonprofits and public bodies funded by work-study money were cut. University of California campuses have given scholarships to students to make up some of the lost earnings, and many on-campus jobs have shifted to remote work.

Like the courses, the co-op at the University of California becomes hybrid for the fall, with campuses offering a mix of in-person and remote jobs. At UC Davis, a small number of students have already returned to work in research labs.

“We keep them social distanced and we clean all surfaces, anything that could be shared,” Agee said. “We’re not going to bring everyone back at the same time.

Still, some financial aid officers have said they may not have enough funds to make up for all lost student income as traditional work-study jobs in libraries and dining halls become scarce.

Grimaldo said she was “very concerned” about the future of work-study for the next academic year.

“We’re going to have to really challenge employers to provide students with opportunities to continue working remotely,” she said. “If we don’t have these opportunities for students, we hope that a future stimulus price may allow us to buy back some of the work-study for some students.”

There is one place, however, where financial aid officers have said there are more work-study jobs than ever before – in their own offices, where requests for help continue to flow.

Arredondo is an intern at the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and state student journalists. Omar Rashad and Stephanie Zappelli contributed reporting.

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