How to Pay for College if COVID-19 Changed Your Financial Situation

How to Pay for College if COVID-19 Changed Your Financial Situation

Figuring out how to pay for college can be stressful under the best circumstances. This year, the financial burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic have complicated the process further. Millions of families have experienced job loss and significant income changes in the months since filing for and receiving financial aid packages—and many can no longer afford the same contributions to tuition, room and board, fees and other costs associated with higher education. But that doesn’t have to mean that college is out of reach altogether. Whether you’re a graduating high school senior making your college decision, or a current college student whose existing financial aid package is no longer enough, there are several steps you can take right now to keep college affordable.

Contact the Financial Aid Office

Don’t assume the first package you receive is the only offer a college is willing to make. Colleges know that financial situations change, and this year they expect many more students than usual to be affected. They want to help, and many have programs in place to do just that. For example, Pomona College established a one-time grant program to replace the minimum student contribution ($1,900-$2,200) in their financial aid packages for all students, current and incoming, who receive financial aid and have a minimum student contribution for the 2020-21 academic year. “The grant was created because we know summer employment opportunities will not be readily available given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Adam Sapp, director of admissions at Pomona. “Students often rely on this income to cover school expenses. This one-year policy is designed to support students during an extraordinary time.” In addition to programs like this, most financial aid offices have a formal appeal process for students to officially request additional aid. Ask a financial aid officer to help walk you through it to make sure you have all the information you need and don’t lose time by submitting incomplete materials. 

Fill Out the FAFSA 

If you didn’t previously apply for financial aid, it’s not too late to fill out your FAFSA. It’s best to submit it immediately, since aid is typically awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. State deadlines differ, but federal aid can be applied for until June 30. Many scholarships also require applicants file the FAFSA, so it’s best to get one on file as soon as possible. “Filling out the FAFSA is important even if you don’t believe you would be eligible for federal grants,” says Marie Johnson, director of Student Financial Services at the University of Vermont. “Too many students/families don’t fill out the FAFSA because they have heard from friends or acquaintances that they won’t qualify for anything. However, financial and family circumstances can vary greatly, as can costs and financial aid funding by school. Their story may not be your story, and you could be leaving money on the table.” 

Apply for Available Scholarships

Typically, most available scholarship money has been claimed by May 1, but not all of it. Log on to popular scholarship search websites like, and Scholarship America to see who is still taking applications. You can also check in with your high school counselors to see if any new local scholarships have been established since the pandemic started, or if your changed financial status makes you newly eligible for existing scholarships still awarded money for next year.

Check for Funding to Help Cover Emergency Expenses

Many schools have made grant programs available to students to cover academic costs related to the pandemic. Northwestern University, for example, provided nearly $1 million of assistance to 1,100 students who needed financial help with the transition to remote learning. Other schools have ongoing emergency grant funds, like the University of Florida’s Aid-A-Gator program, which provides up to $1,000 in one-time money to help cover a technology need or unexpected travel. Knowing that resources like these exist can help you make your way through unpredictable circumstances.

Do Your Research Before Deferring of Taking a Leave of Absence

With so many unknowns about the fall semester, you may be considering deferring or taking a leave of absence. While there may be benefits to these options, you should double-check financial aid policies before formally requesting a change in status. Policies differ from college to college; in some cases, a decision to defer or take a leave could mean surrendering your merit aid or athletic scholarship or having to reapply for a new financial aid package. Even if you’ve already talked to your dream school’s financial aid office and still aren’t able to make the finances work, there are other options to explore. If you decide to use a deferment to take courses online, or through a community college, make sure the courses you choose will count toward your major. If you want to get your degree from a specific institution, talk to them about how you might be able to attend a community college for a year or two and then transfer in. They can often help with academic advising to make sure you’re staying on track academically and will be able to transfer the maximum number of credits. An approach like this can help you save money while still meeting your end goal.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already brought about many changes and uncertainties—and higher education is no exception. We’re all in this together, and colleges and universities want to help their students find success. Even though your financial circumstances may have changed, you can still make your college dreams a reality. Reach out to the financial aid office to ensure you are making the best financial decisions while keeping the overall costs of your education as low as possible.

Stacey Kostell
Stacey Kostell is the chief executive officer of the Coalition for College, a diverse group of public and private colleges and universities across the U.S. working to improve the college application and admissions process and promote access to higher education.