Recent and Currently Enrolled College Students Discuss Unique Needs During Coronavirus Pandemic

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, college students have been at the forefront of economic hardships imposed by the ongoing crisis. Between coursework suddenly being administered remotely and having to relocate from their college campuses, to navigating recently enacted federal aid packages and confronting barriers with accessing aid, the ongoing crisis has caused significant upheaval in their day to day lives. 

During a virtual forum on Thursday, hosted by The Century Foundation, a progressive-leaning think tank, a group of recent college graduates and currently enrolled college students recounted the challenges imposed at the outset of the pandemic and what the federal government, along with institutions of higher education, can be doing to support students in need.

Since the enactment of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and aid distribution from the Department of Education (ED), which has gone through an extensive back-and-forth, a large portion of college students have been able to receive aid for unexpected expenses. 

Hannah Mulroe — a rising senior at the University of Southern California and co-president of Trojan Shelter/S4S, which focuses on ending college homelessness — recounted that her university was able to pay out work-study stipends for students who were unable to continue with their duties due to stay-at-home orders, provide relocation assistance when the campus was shut down, and made resources available online for students who were unable to collect textbooks before being forced to leave campus. 

“You have to be really on top of seeing those things coming in and knowing what you needed, and finding those resources and applying for them on time,” Mulroe said of being able to receive aid. 

Since schools had some flexibility in determining which students could receive aid and how that distribution was administered, students across the country had varied experiences.

“It's really up to each institution to make their own decisions about their criteria for funding and actions, so [there has been] a lot of variability throughout the nation as to how students will be supported with these emergency resources,” Mulroe said. “I think everyone's had a wide range of experiences with that.”

Congress is now plotting out its next aid package, with Democrats pitching the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act as a way to help higher education institutions navigate the uncharted waters, while Senate Republicans plan to release a proposal soon with the goal of enacting another bout of aid before both chambers depart for August recess.

As Congress begins this process, students are looking for additional policy proposals and resources, like freezing tuition since colleges are offering less on-campus instruction. 

“There's probably going to be an economic downturn because of this,” said Jemere Calhoun, program manager at Rise, Inc., a nonprofit focusing on college affordability. “A lot of people are going to be returning to school, but if these tuitions keep going high, we could see a lot of people not coming back to school, and just really a very negative trend happening.”

While the universality of the coronavirus has led to efforts to support  students becoming a focus in aid discussions, Niya Ray, summer scholar at The Century Foundation, expressed concern over whether these ongoing negotiations will yield a more systematic way of dealing with the ongoing student loan crisis, or if assisting coronavirus-related expenses will be a narrow fix. 

“Everybody's experiencing the same thing at the same time, but people have experienced financial hardships before that has stopped them from paying their loans,” Ray said. “Are we going to continue with a level of urgency to address the student loan crisis? Or are we just going to say, ‘Well, the pandemic happened, that was it, we gave you relief then, but we're not there anymore so let's move on.’”

As currently enrolled college students plot out how to deal with COVID-19, a new cohort of prospective students will have to deal with the virus while navigating the college search and financial aid process. These challenges are new, but in going through the process they should be sure to continually request access to resources from institutions when facing a need, those on the panel said. 

“It took me two rounds of financial aid appeals, without [a global pandemic] to finally get the amount of money that I needed from my university,” said Roquel Crutcher, a policy entrepreneur with Next100, which partners with The Century Foundation. “Be persistent about what you need and don't be afraid to ask for it.”


Publication Date: 7/17/2020

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