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The 2024-25 FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) will be available in December 2023.

If your and your family’s ability to pay for college changed drastically due to COVID-19, you may be wondering, “What do I do now?”

First, take a deep breath and remember you’re not alone. This continues to be a time of financial uncertainty for many college-bound students and their families. 

If you need more financial aid than you initially expected when planning for college, check out these recommended steps from experts. 

Complete the FAFSA® First

While it may not reflect the full picture of your family’s current financial situation, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is still the first step in getting financial aid. It’s important to complete the form even if your financial situation has changed over the past few years, and even if you’re worried you may not be awarded as much as you need. 

“Students and families who have experienced job loss or significant changes in income as a result of the pandemic should complete their FAFSA using the income information from the appropriate year tax forms, even if it does not currently reflect their financial circumstance,” says Allie Arcese, a spokesperson for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA). 

Currently the FAFSA relies on tax data from two years prior to determine need, and the formula used to determine a family’s financial aid eligibility is set by Congress. Modifications to these rules would require legislative changes. The only way to start the process of securing any financial aid at all—along with gaining access to many scholarships—is to complete the FAFSA.

Appeal Your Financial Aid Award

After you’ve filled out the FAFSA, you can reach out to the schools on your list for next steps on the appeal process. “When there are unusual situations or circumstances that impact a student’s federal student aid eligibility, federal regulations give a financial aid administrator discretion—on a case-by-case basis and with adequate documentation—to make adjustments to the data elements on the FAFSA that impact the student’s [aid eligibility],” says Ben Kohl, former president of the Kansas Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Kohl also adds that a financial aid appeal goes by different names at different schools, such as a “professional judgment” or a “special circumstances process.” 

Don’t be shy about asking for a recalculation. Financial aid offices are prepared for such requests.

Keep in mind, there’s no standard way for schools to handle appeals. It’s likely that each school’s process will be a little different. 

Arcese recommends contacting financial aid offices directly to be sure you understand their process. Keep a spreadsheet of what each school requires and what you’ve submitted, similar to your college or scholarship application spreadsheet. 

Kohl suggests having documentation of your financial change ready, as you will likely have to share it to initiate the process. This can include a letter of termination, unemployment insurance forms, or court documents, depending on the situation. 

Don’t be shy about asking for a recalculation. Financial aid offices are prepared for these requests. 

Stay on Top of Deadlines

Be sure to note all federal, state, and college-specific deadlines for the schools on your list. “It’s also important to ask about professional judgment deadlines,” says Arcese. “Some schools may have deadlines by which students must submit their professional judgment requests to be reviewed for a certain term or semester.” You can track these deadlines on the requirement spreadsheet you’ve created. 

The bottom line is that it’s key to ask for help directly. Don’t hesitate to reach out to schools, Arcese urges. “Financial aid offices want to help students as much as they are able.” Connect early and often to get the support you need to successfully navigate this tricky time. 

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans. 

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