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 is a time of financial uncertainty for many college-bound students and their families. 

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

Complete the FAFSA First

Yes, complete the form even if your financial situation has changed. And yes, even if you’re worried you may not be awarded as much as you need. While it may not be an accurate reflection of your family’s current financial situation, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is still the first step in getting financial aid. 

“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). 

Why can’t changes be made on the FAFSA to include more recent financial data? By law, the FAFSA relies on tax data from two years prior to determine need. And the formula used to determine a family’s expected contribution is set by Congress. Modifications to these rules would require legislative changes that may come too late to affect the financial need that families are facing today. 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. “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 Expected Family Contribution,” 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.

A financial aid appeal isn’t the only part of the process that varies by school. Since this is a new and evolving set of circumstances, 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 professional judgment process. Keep a spreadsheet of what each school requires and what you’ve submitted, similar to your college or scholarship application spreadsheet. 

Kohl recommends 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. 

If you’re appealing your financial aid award after receiving your award letter, be sure to call attention to aspects of the award that could be impacted by COVID-19. For example, if you’ve been awarded work-study but your school has shifted to online-only classes, you likely won’t be able to secure a work-study job. 

Don’t be shy about asking for a recalculation. Financial aid offices are prepared for such requests. According to a recent survey by NASFAA, 90% of their member institutions anticipate experiencing an increase in appeal requests this year.

Stay on Top of Deadlines

While FAFSA deadlines have not changed, some states have extended their aid application deadlines and schools can have their own deadlines as well. 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. 

Look Into Additional Grants

There may be additional grants available to you. “The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act created education stabilization funds available through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF),” says Kohl. 

Many colleges and universities channel these funds into need-based grants for students with exceptional financial need due to COVID-19. While these funds were distributed to schools in spring 2020, it’s still worth pursuing. Not all schools have fully allocated their funds and there may be other emergency relief grants that become available.

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.