Manchester Community College’s 2019 Graduation Ceremony. Courtesy photo.
As millions lose their jobs across the country, college students and their families are wondering how they will continue to pay for their education. Meanwhile, financial aid officials at colleges and universities statewide say they are working to keep them enrolled.
Colleges and universities are waiting for guidelines from the federal government as to how they can disburse the billions of federal dollars being made available to help students affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 9, the U.S. Department of Education announced it is distributing nearly $14 billion to support postsecondary education students and institutions, of which $6.28 billion is earmarked for emergency cash grants to students through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Schools can use discretion as to which students receive those grants, which can be used for such costs as course materials, technology, food, housing, health care, and childcare.
The amount of money each school receives is based on a formula weighted by the number of full-time students who are Pell-eligible. Schools are expected to receive allocations and guidance in the next few weeks.
The Community College System of NH has received $3 million through the CARES Act for its students and is also tapping into donations and an emergency aid fund to assist them, says Charles Ansell, the system’s COO. “The CARES stimulus fund is not small. It does not meet all the impacts of the coronavirus on our system but it is generous,” Ansell says.
Southern NH University (SNHU) in Manchester has fielded more than 1,500 requests from students for financial aid adjustments or financial assistance since the COVID-19 pandemic began, says Lauren Keane, assistant vice president of communications at SNHU. While the university is waiting for CARES funds to arrive, it has developed procedures to disburse the aid to students when the funds are in hand, she says.
“The university has several teams working to get information out to students on how to apply for funding and financial aid counselors are being trained on the process so that we can assist any student impacted when the funding arrives. The good news is that the process for applying for financial aid has not changed and the distribution of the relief funding can use existing processes that are familiar to our students,” Keane says.
Keeping Students Whole
Most undergrad students rely on some sort of financial aid. Officials from the New Hampshire colleges and universities contacted for this story say between 70 and 100% of their undergrads receive financial aid as does a significant portion of graduate students.
These officials also say they are working with students on a case-by-case basis to help them address financial issues as well as other challenges they are facing during the pandemic. “We don’t want anyone forgoing the future for some immediate emergency,” Ansell says. He says students are facing a variety of COVID-19-related hardships, including becoming sick, losing a job or not having access to daycare. “Our main message is don’t give up. We will work this out with you,” Ansell says.
Anna Miner, vice president for admissions and financial aid at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, says the college has not fielded many phone calls about adjusting financial aid yet. “Many of the calls [we receive] are people calling about what happens if I am no longer working. We explain the resources available,” including grants, loan forgiveness programs and deferred payment options. Colby-Sawyer is waiting to see what it will receive for CARES funds and determine how those will be distributed, Miner says.
Rivier University in Nashua has begun to see students and parents asking for relief due to COVID-19 and is “generously and promptly” responding to those requests as well as creating a process to disburse federal aid to students as soon as possible, says John Parker, vice president for finance and administration at Rivier.
“Our priority is to make sure students remain whole, engaged in an online learning format and have the technology and academic resources they need to succeed in their respective programs,” Parker says.
Keane says SNHU is also working with students on a case-by-case basis to adjust financial aid and assist nearly every student who asks for help. “Financial aid goes beyond just federal dollars. We also have programs in place such as our Campus Care Team program, which helps students financially to connect them to technology, health, or housing and food services. Our institutional advancement team has created the Penmen Emergency Fund to support students facing one-time non-tuition and housing-related financial hardships. We made funds available to help students with move-out procedures, and we also have a number of funds available for online students who need assistance that they may not be able to get from a traditional loan or financial aid package,” Keane says.
Prorated Room and Board
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, colleges and universities sent students home to finish their semesters online. Like Colby-Sawyer, Franklin Pierce University in Rindge and SNHU, Rivier responded by announcing it was giving students room and board refunds or credits.
“When this all broke several weeks back, as with every institution, it was scramble to make our students whole,” says Parker of Rivier. “We’ve sent letters to parents and students regarding the calculation and distribution of those funds,” he says.
Miner of Colby Sawyer says some families even elected to donate the refund back to the college.
Kenneth Ferreira, associate vice president of Student Financial Services at Franklin Pierce University, says while 2020 graduates will receive prorated refunds for housing and meals, returning students will receive their prorated expenses returned in the form of additional financial aid in the fall. “The U.S. Department of Education has allowed for colleges and universities to include these adjustments as estimated financial aid for the next semester, which will prove helpful for many students in the fall,” he states.
Work Study Funds
“The U.S. Department of Education also allows schools to transfer Federal Work Study funds to Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant funds that can be given out at our discretion to help students that are affected by COVID-19, which Manchester Community College is doing,” says Stephanie Weldon, director of financial aid at Manchester Community College.
While students whose work study programs are paid by federal funds will continue to receive that money, Parker says students whose work study programs are paid directly by the university are not covered by those same allowances and instead are able to file for unemployment. “We transferred some of our work-study allocation to an emergency grant fund to help get money into students hands as soon as possible,” he says.
As students wrap up their spring semester, questions loom about summer and fall sessions. Many schools already released their financial packages for the fall before the pandemic hit the U.S. full force though officials interviewed for this story report they will be honoring those commitments.
Franklin Pierce is evaluating requests for additional financial aid for the fall 2020 semester on a daily basis, and Ferreira says most students already had 100% of their financing in place for the spring semester when the pandemic declaration took place.
Franklin Pierce invests more than $30 million annually in scholarships and grants and about $40 million in federal and state financial aid, Ferreira says. Students and parents have plenty of questions about their future, though. “Students and families are expressing some worry about Fall 2020 due to the massive economic impact COVID-19 has had. Our goal is to have housing and meal credits for Spring 2020 calculated by April 30. This will then appear as anticipated aid for Fall 2020, providing a big help to students and allowing for us to work with families who will need assistance beyond this measure. ... We will maximize every source of financial assistance that we can—federal, state, university, and outside donor sources. The well may not be bottomless, but we will leave no stone unturned when it comes to assisting our students to the best extent possible.”
Ferreira says he and the financial aid staff have been working “days, nights, and weekends to offer one-on-one counseling sessions for students and their families, including holding Zoom appointments with prospective students for Fall 2020 to review their financial aid and discuss financial planning.
He says the school even provided a town hall style event in April to allow students and parents to ask questions about financial aid and the financial aid process. Ferreira says the idea was to “virtually hold our students’ hands.”
Ferreira also notes there may be additional funds available that a student may not be aware of.
“The resounding message I have for students is to take a deep breath, work with a financial aid counselor, and keep those hopes and dreams that they have alive.”
Colby Sawyer sent new student financial aid packages in January, Miner says. “All those commitments will be honored,” she says. The community college system is honoring all of its financial aid packages, Ansell says. “We expect there will be an increase in expressed need,” he says.
Rivier has committed $15 million in institutional aid for full-time undergrads for the next fiscal year and Parker says he does not envision the COVID crisis affecting that. “We are fiscally sound and thriving as an institution,” Parker says, pointing out Rivier will open the doors to its new $19 million, 36,000-square-foot science building on July 1. “We’re creating financial models and scenario planning” for the summer and fall semesters, he says. The university extended the deadline for deposits to June 1.
College officials are aware of the vital role education will play in helping people and the state recover economically.
“[Students] need us and the state needs us,” Ansell says. “We help those with less advantages get more advantages and people have less advantages now more than ever.”
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