4 Steps College Students Should Take to Get Coronavirus Financial Aid – Now and In The Future

Renee Layberry
May 4, 2021

The federal government sent out $2 trillion in stimulus checks this spring. The money went to unmarried taxpayers who made $75,000 or less. It also went to couples who made less than $150,000. Taxpayers with dependents under the age of 17 received cash too.   So where did that stimulus package leave the 18 to 24 year-old college student?   In the dust.   You were ineligible for stimulus money if your parents claimed you as a dependent. That’s why you never saw a college student stimulus check. Plus, it meant your parents did not receive additional stimulus money on your behalf.   The federal stimulus package simply left college students behind under the mistaken assumption that students between the ages of 18 and 24 had adequate family financial support. Leaving them to have to take out more money in student loans and feel the aftershocks of the Coronavirus even more than they already were   You may see changes in future stimulus packages – if the lawmakers can agree on one. Until then, here are four actions you can take today. These steps will help alleviate your own financial situation and will help ensure that state and federal lawmakers don’t overlook college students in any upcoming financial stimulus packages.   Signup for our free weekly CLT newsletter for more news and Coronavirus updates!  

Action 1: Apply for CARES funds

In April 2020, the federal government earmarked $12.5 billion for COVID-19 relief aid for more than 5,000 colleges. That aid package was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.   According to the U.S. Department of Education, half the amount was issued in April as cash grants to students whose education was disrupted by the pandemic. The amount of money each college gets is based on the number of full-time students who receive Pell Grants (federally subsidized financial assistance for low-income students), among other considerations. Schools then distribute the money to students based on need and on a first-come-first-serve basis.  

When can I apply for CARES?

It’s too late to apply for expenses incurred during the spring 2020 semester (applications were due on June 30, 2020). However, your school may have remaining or additional funds that can be used to cover expenses for your summer 2020 term. Check with your school’s financial aid office as soon as you can to see if you are eligible.   Don't forget, you still have to pay your tuition. Don't wait to do so and check out the top student loan offers for 2020:
  1. CollegeAve
  2. Discover
  3. SallieMae
  person working from home on a zoom call with a coworker Photo by Julia M. Cameron

What do I need to apply for CARES?

You will, at a minimum, need to have filed a FAFSA (the application colleges use to determine your financial aid eligibility) to apply for any CARES money. It’s important to note that you cannot be enrolled in exclusively online courses.   You also must show documentation of expenses incurred as a result of school disruptions caused by the virus. Those expenses may include:
  • transportation
  • food
  • medical bills
  • rent
  • school supplies, including laptops, broadband internet service, or other technologies.
  That means if you had to buy a webcam or a printer for online classes, those expenses may be reimbursed. If you lost your job, you may be eligible for relief aid that will cover a portion of your rent. If you had to travel back to campus to collect your belongings, you may be reimbursed for those travel expenses.   Because every school is different, you won’t know what you might qualify for until you speak to a financial aid advisor who can help you navigate the process specific to your school.   We don’t know yet if more CARES money will be available for the fall 2020 term. Much will depend on whether your school goes forward with remote or in-person instruction. You should still talk to a financial aid advisor about what funding may become available as we move closer to the fall term.  

Action 2: Apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance

Another source of short-term financial support may be available to you through a program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). This offers unemployment benefits to people who lost their jobs (or who were unable to start a job) due to the coronavirus.   Typically, unemployment benefits exclude part-time workers. Even in the more than 20 states that do provide benefits for part-time workers, half disqualify students from receiving benefits.   The PUA applies to anyone – including students – who lost a job directly because of the pandemic.  

Examples of who might qualify

That means you may be eligible for PUA if you held a part-time job and lost it when the employer closed because of the coronavirus. For instance, if you were working at a health club that closed, not because of an economic downturn, but because of state or local shut-down requirements, you could collect PUA.   Likewise, if you had a job lined up and were never able to start it, you probably qualify for PUA. For example, if you were supposed to work as a camp counselor or a lifeguard during the summer and the camp or pool never opened, your unemployment is a direct result of the pandemic and thus falls under PUA.   Photo by Anna Shvets

How to apply for PUA

PUA funds are retroactive to January 27, 2020, and last until July 30, 2020, unless Congress extends the deadline. Eligible applicants can collect benefits for up to 39 weeks (or as long as they held the job, or as long as the job was scheduled to last).   You'll need proof of employment or of an employer’s intent to hire you. So if you were unable to start an eight-week job as a camp counselor, you’ll need that employer to write a letter confirming the job offer and proof that the camp never opened.   There’s no cost to apply, so if you think you may be eligible, go to your state’s unemployment insurance office online to find a link to the PUA application. Note that if you live in Minnesota, you cannot collect PUA funds for part-time work. The state is working on changing that, so contact Minnesota’s Labor Department for more information.  

Action 3: Ask your representative to support the RELIEF Act

Congress is currently in session until August 8, 2020. Before they leave for their summer recess, contact your congressional representative and ask them to support Representative Bobby Rush’s (D-IL) proposal, the Student Recovery for Low-Income Individuals to Exact Funds (RELIEF).   The RELIEF plan, if enacted, would provide financial support to nearly 8 million college students. Students who currently receive Pell Grants would be eligible for a $1,200 stimulus check. You can let your House representatives know that you support RELIEF.   An earlier bill, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, passed the House in May, but the Senate refused to hear it. Under that plan, college students would have been eligible for stimulus checks and up to $10,000 in student loan forgiveness. Be sure to contact your senators to let them know that you want them to consider bills coming out of the House, like the new RELIEF bill.   There are currently three other proposals on the table in the House that could help college students who are experiencing financial distress.   Photo by Ketut Subiyanto
  Congressional action can be contingent on the pressure voters put on lawmakers. Unfortunately, college students often fail to vote, which means that lawmakers may feel less pressure to respond to college students’ needs and concerns. By contacting your lawmakers, you are letting them know that you are invested in the decisions they are making on your behalf.   If you’re not registered to vote, register with your home state immediately. Your voice will be louder if lawmakers know you plan to show up at the polls or mail in a ballot on the next election day.  

Future changes

Even after this pandemic subsides, you can still fight for long-term changes that will help other college students.   For example, Pell Grants currently max out at $6,345. The National College Attainment Network (NCAN), a nonprofit advocacy group, has long been calling that the grant be doubled. Congress isn’t likely to do that right now, but if more young people become politically active, lawmakers will be forced to address issues like this. That could ultimately lessen the equity gap in terms of who gets to go to college and who doesn’t.  

Action 4: Stay in school

You might be wondering if you should return to college this fall. Despite the pandemic, the best thing you can do is find a way to stay in school, whether classes are held online, in-person, or a mix of both.   If your school is going remote, know that the faculty are currently completing hours of training in digital and remote learning best practices. If your college is going to be in-person, know that CARES funding is going toward helping schools purchase personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, and classroom technologies.   Taking a semester off may seem like a good plan, but the reality is that you’ll probably struggle to find a job. Pew Research found that 28.5% of 16- to 24-year-olds were unemployed in May 2020. That number reflects, at least in part, the lack of available jobs.   Making progress on your degree is the best way to prepare yourself right now for whatever the economy brings. NCAN Executive Director Kim Cook notes in an Inside Higher Ed article that during the last economic recession, 80% of jobs required a college degree. She says staying in school is also crucial to the country’s economic recovery, adding: “Now is not the time to step away, but double down.”   If you haven’t qualified yet for any of the government stimulus packages, keep your eyes and ears open. The coronavirus situation is dynamic and fast-moving. Once school begins in August or September, you may have additional financial support options.   In the meantime, contact your school’s financial aid office to get all the information on current financial relief programs. Then plan to get back to class this fall, whatever that looks like.   And if you still need a loan to pay your tuition, check out the top student loan offers for 2020:
  1. CollegeAve
  2. Discover
  3. SallieMae