Getting Emergency Financial Aid During COVID-19

Colleges are starting to distribute a second round of federal emergency financial aid grants to students as part of the higher education relief funding designated for them by Congress. Students who have exceptional financial need will be prioritized, and in some cases they may need to complete an application with their institution to receive the aid.

Signed into law by then-President Donald Trump on Dec. 27, 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 allocated $22.7 billion to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund II, known as HEERF II. Some of that funding must be used in direct aid to students.

This second iteration of relief money follows the roughly $14 billion allocated to colleges in spring 2020 in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, which also required that colleges distribute emergency grants to students.

The aid designated for students in HEERF II aims to continue supporting students in 2021 who have been financially affected by the coronavirus pandemic. This financial help is urgently needed, says Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy at the National College Attainment Network.

“There could be students who took a break who are just coming back this semester. There could be students whose parent may have lost a job recently as we watch the ebbs and flows of unemployment rates. They could be facing new medical expenses, as we saw cases spike over the winter, such that maybe families who were OK in their employment now are in a tough spot because of medical bills if they had a family member who contracted COVID during this winter surge,” Warick says.

“It’s important to keep in mind that student experiences aren’t necessarily static as we go through the pandemic,” she says.

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

In some cases, students may need to take action to receive a grant. Here’s what current students should know about accessing emergency financial aid during the COVID-19 crisis.

More Students May Be Eligible This Round

Unlike the CARES Act funding, students do not have to be eligible under Title IV of the Higher Education Act to receive the new grants. Previously, students had to meet requirements like having a valid Social Security number; registering with the Selective Service System, if the student is male; and having a high school diploma, GED or completion of high school in an approved homeschool setting.

Instead, in this second round of funding, schools are just required to prioritize students with exceptional need.

Eligible students can use this grant aid to pay for any component of their college’s cost of attendance or for emergency costs that arise due to the coronavirus pandemic, like tuition, food, housing, health care, mental health care or child care.

Students May Need to Complete an Application

One way colleges will determine if students have exceptional need is by requiring them to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, or a separate application. According to the U.S. Department of Education, colleges may also distribute aid based on which students are eligible for the Pell Grant, a form of financial aid awarded to the lowest-income students.

[Read: How to Get FAFSA Completion Help During Coronavirus.]

The steps to receive an emergency grant will vary by institution.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison, for example, will use a hybrid model. The school plans to distribute $1,000 in federal emergency aid automatically to students who are eligible for the Pell Grant. In addition, per the school’s website, “some of these funds will be reserved for any enrolled UW–Madison undergraduate or graduate student experiencing emergency financial hardship that renders them unable to meet immediate, essential expenses” — but to be considered, they must submit an online Emergency Support Request form.

For students who received a federal emergency grant last year, the application process may look similar this year. But they should still check with their financial aid office as some colleges may alter their distribution strategy, says Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

“Some institutions might set up an application; some might identify students to receive the grant automatically,” McCarthy says. “Schools are just starting to get going on this, figuring out what their process will be. Some schools will do the same thing they did last time; others will be switching it up. Because students don’t need to be Title IV like last time, schools are taking a look at (their process).”

Amounts May Vary and Will Likely Come Via Direct Deposit

According to the law, when distributing the HEERF II funding, colleges must provide the same amount of financial aid grants to students that was provided under the CARES Act. For example, a college that distributed $300,000 in federal emergency grants to students last year must match that amount this year.

The exact amount an individual student receives from his or her institution will depend on the student’s need and the amount of aid a specific college was allocated.

The University of North Carolina–Wilmington, for example, will begin distributing grants of $300 to $900 to eligible students who have completed the 2020-2021 FAFSA and have a family income of $150,000 or less, according to the school’s website.

Taking a slightly different approach, the University of Missouri will distribute grants based on a student’s expected family contribution, or EFC, which is a number that is calculated based on information a student provides on the FAFSA. Undergraduates with an EFC of 0 to 12000 will automatically receive an estimated award amount of $1,000, and those with an EFC of 12001 to 20000 will receive $700.

Like with CARES Act grants, colleges will likely distribute money via direct deposit when possible, or check when necessary.

[Read: How College Students Are Managing Coronavirus Stress.]

Ineligible Students May Still Have Access to Other Funds

Colleges’ ability to award the emergency federal aid to noncitizens such as undocumented students, including students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, and international students, may still be limited.

“The higher education community has asked the new administration to chime in on that DACA, international and undocumented piece, but they haven’t issued any guidance yet,” McCarthy says. “Some guidance came out from the prior administration and we’re still waiting on the new administration to chime in if they wanted to change any of that or be consistent — we’re not sure. Right now, we’re going on what we heard from the Trump administration,” which limits the federal grants to U.S. citizens and eligible noncitizens only.

The financial need among groups like undocumented students, however, is severe, according to Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.

“There’s no doubt undocumented students are experiencing great difficulties during this pandemic,” Feldblum says. “There are over 400,000 undocumented students who were on college campuses, according to the data we released last spring. We’re not talking about a small number. They counted toward the estimates in terms of the overall funding that went to colleges and should also, for those with exceptional need, be allowed to gain access to emergency funds.”

Some colleges continue to support noncitizens and others ineligible for federal aid by providing institutional grants. UW–Madison, for example, says applications for emergency aid will be considered on a case-by-case basis and that “private funds will be used for students with emergency needs who may not meet the federal criteria for federal funding.”

Noncitizens may benefit from federal aid if new guidance makes such an allowance, but for now, students ineligible for federal emergency grants can contact their college and seek private relief.

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

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Getting Emergency Financial Aid During COVID-19 originally appeared on

Update 02/18/21: This article has been updated with new information.

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