How to Access Limited Community College Financial Aid Relief

A majority of community college students work at a job while in school. Many have dependent children and are low-income or first-generation students. Their needs during the coronavirus pandemic are often different from those of four-year college students, and community colleges are trying to meet those needs ahead of a possible spike in enrollment this fall.

The missions of community colleges typically involve educating and retraining workers locally, and these schools often see enrollment increases in times of high unemployment as they provide a low-cost alternative to four-year public and private institutions. But there may be a decline in community college student services and financial aid relief in the coming months as states begin to make big cuts in higher education funding.

[Read: Coronavirus Emergency Financial Aid: What Students Should Know. ]

In California, for example, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised proposed budget for 2020-2021 would cut more than $1 billion in funding for the California Community Colleges system — a blow that Marty J. Alvarado, executive vice chancellor for educational services at the California Community Colleges system, says will directly affect students.

During the spring semester, after schools began moving instruction online in March, community colleges across the country distributed federal emergency financial aid to eligible students provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act. Some community colleges are still distributing that money, but others are no longer accepting applications from students, if one was required, or do not have remaining federal funds.

In addition to shrinking funds, community colleges may also be limited in their ability to supply students with emergency financial aid because of the way the CARES Act federal funding was calculated. The formula relied heavily on the number of full-time Pell Grant recipients at schools. While many students enrolled in community colleges are eligible for Pell, a form of federal financial aid for low-income students, many also enroll part time rather than full time, which affected the amount of aid schools received.

“It is anticipated that our institutions are going to be very stretched to be able to meet the needs of students,” Alvarado says. “There is direct aid that needs to go to students, but we also provide mental health resources, tutoring resources, academic and emotional counseling resources. Right now, we are choosing to provide direct aid to students, but then that’s cutting back on those wraparound services students need.”

[Read: How the Coronavirus Can Disrupt Your College Financial Aid.]

“Now we’re transitioning into phase two of this, which is really the fall transition,” says Mark D’Amico, president of the Council for the Study of Community Colleges. “As all colleges across the country that had gone online are doing, they’re thinking about their reopening plan and how they’ll do that.”

As the summer and fall semesters approach, D’Amico says many community college students will likely still be struggling with unemployment, child care needs, and food and housing insecurity. Even after federal emergency funding dries up, however, students may still be able to get emergency aid from their school, state, the wider community or from community college partnerships.

D’Amico says each community college has different partnerships with local philanthropic service organizations, and students can contact their school to learn more about what’s available and how to access these funds. In some cases, a community college may request gift aid from individual donors to meet a student’s specific needs, he says.

In addition, if students have had a change in their financial situation, such as a job loss or pay cut, they can work with their financial aid offices to update their information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, so that it better reflects their current ability to pay for school.

[READ: How Financial Aid Appeals Work Due to Coronavirus.]

Each community college is responding to the pandemic differently based on their unique local needs and circumstances, so the means through which students can get financial aid and other support will vary. Houston Community College, for example, says it already had a robust emergency financial aid system in place before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“When Hurricane Harvey was over, we continued our emergency aid program for students who have experienced financial emergencies midsemester that would have prevented them from staying in school,” says JoEllen Soucier, executive director of financial aid at HCC.

“So when COVID-19 hit, we already had experience through the Hurricane Harvey emergency that had happened two years prior. We immediately started moving funds around and taking advantage of the flexibility provided to us so we could help students with emergency needs,” using both institutional and federal dollars, she says. This amounted to about $14 million total — an average of $785 per eligible student.

HCC students were notified via email about the availability of these funds and were required to complete an emergency financial aid request application.

Several community colleges have announced tuition freezes, one way the financial burden on these students won’t increase further this fall. All 23 of Virginia’s community colleges, for example, will freeze tuition prices for the coming academic year thanks to a decision made by the State Board for Community Colleges.

Whether students enroll to take a slot machine repair course in Reno, Nevada, or a semester of introductory courses at a low cost while waiting for a four-year college to reopen its campus, community colleges will play a critical role in reopening the U.S. economy, says Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.

“Community colleges are uniquely poised for this because 42% of our enrollment are in career and technical education programs, so they really are a solution as we start to reopen the nation,” she says.

But financially supporting students during this time will be critical to fulfilling that mission, she says.

Most community colleges are working to provide students with money for basic needs, a Wi-Fi connection and even laptops to help them continue their studies. Experts say students should contact their financial aid office and check their school emails frequently for the latest updates as policies change rapidly. Getting access to these resources may require proof of a change in financial situation, such as a letter from a former employer documenting their unemployment status, or the completion of an application, often found on a college’s website.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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