With more than a third of American workers losing their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic, it seems likely that more than a million parents of college-age children will have lost their jobs or experienced a pay cut.
Since the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is based on prior-prior year income and tax information, the 2021-2022 FAFSA that families file starting October 1, 2020 is based on 2019 income, which is from before the pandemic.
Although families cannot substitute 2020 income for 2019 income, they can contact the college to appeal for more financial aid, arguing that the 2019 income is not reflective of their ability to pay for college.
Most colleges will ask the family to write a short letter summarizing the special circumstances that affect their ability to pay for college. (Some colleges will have a form that can be downloaded from the college’s web site.) COVID-19 is a legitimate special circumstance that can justify an increase in college financial aid.
Here is a step-by-step guide to writing a FAFSA appeal letter for COVID-19:
- State in the opening paragraph that you are appealing for more financial aid because your ability to pay for college has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Mention the student’s name and college ID number. Thank them for considering your appeal.
- Include a list of the special circumstances that affect your ability to pay for college, with one special circumstance per paragraph. Be specific concerning dates and dollar amounts.
- If you have lost your job because of the pandemic, say so and specify the date you lost your job. State whether you’ve subsequently gotten a new job and whether there is a difference in compensation (and, if so, how much). If you do not have a new job, mention whether you are receiving unemployment benefits and how much. Mention whether there is a time limit on the receipt of unemployment benefits (e.g., 13 weeks, 26 weeks, etc.). Mention whether you have received severance pay and how much.
- If your salary has been cut, bonuses eliminated or you’ve been furloughed, provide details, including how this has affected your annual income.
- If you have not been able to work because you’ve been quarantined or forced to shelter in place due to the risk of COVID-19 exposure, specify the duration and how much this has reduced your annual income.
- If you are a small business owner and sales have decreased, summarize the impact on your annual income.
- If you have been living off of your savings because of the loss of income, mention how much your savings has decreased.
- If you have unreimbursed medical bills because of COVID-19, such as an extended hospital stay, provide a summary of the total amount of medical bills you’ve had to pay. Include the total of all medical expenses, not just the medical bills related to COVID-19, and include premiums, deductibles and co-pays.
- If you have extra costs related to COVID-19, such as the need to buy a computer, software, peripherals and internet access so that you or your children can participate in online education, summarize the major items and amounts. Likewise, mention if you’ve had to buy a desk and desk chair. If the college was providing special accommodations for your child’s disabilities while they were on campus, and you’ve had to spend money to duplicate those accommodations, summarize the accommodations and their costs.
- Also mention any special circumstances that are unrelated to COVID-19.
- Focus on the facts. Mention only special circumstances that have affected your family financially. Be specific concerning the financial details: who, what, when and how much.
- Include copies of documentation relating to the special circumstances, such as a copy of the job layoff or furlough notice, a copy of a letter from the unemployment office demonstrating the receipt of unemployment benefits, and copies of medical bills relating to the pandemic. It is best if the documentation is recent, dated within the last 90 days.
- Close the letter by once again thanking the financial aid administrator for considering your special circumstances. Be sure to include your contact information with the letter.
- Send the letter and documentation to the college’s financial aid office. It is best to send it with proof of receipt, such as sending it with delivery confirmation or by certified mail, return receipt requested. Some colleges will ask you to upload the appeal letter to a special online portal.
- Contact the college financial aid office to confirm receipt about a week after you send the letter, even if you have proof of receipt, because letters can be misdirected even after they arrive at the college’s mail room. Ask the financial aid administrator if they need any additional information.
Colleges can consider special circumstances due to COVID-19 not just for an increase in financial aid, but also for access to special emergency financial aid funds.
It can take a few days to a few weeks for the college to respond to the financial aid appeal letter. The number of financial aid appeals has doubled because of job loss and pay cuts, so be patient.
If several weeks have passed and you haven’t heard anything from the college, contact them to ask about the status of your financial aid appeal.
Mark Kantrowitz is not just Savingforcollege.com’s publisher. He’s also the author of the bestselling book, How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid. The book is available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle formats.
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