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Opinion | Eric Zarnikow: Students can seek adjustments in financial aid

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So you just finished your senior year of high school. You did everything you needed to do to plan to go to college this fall — maybe you are even the first in your family who will attend. Perhaps you are a returning student.

You filed your 2020-21 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) last fall and you thought you had some financial aid offers that would make it affordable for you to attend — or continue attending school.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Maybe a parent or guardian was laid off from their job. Maybe you lost your job. The amount of financial aid you were offered was based on you or your family being able to contribute money from income that no longer exists.

But college can still be possible this fall. If your family’s financial situation has changed significantly from what is reflected on the 2018 federal tax return(s) used in the 2020-21 FAFSA you completed, you may be eligible to have your financial aid adjusted.

That’s true at any time, not just in a pandemic.   

Students whose financial situation has been negatively impacted should contact the financial aid office at the college or university they plan to attend to explain how their financial situation has changed. The school will likely ask you to submit documentation of the change, including current income and assets (for you and your parent(s), if you are a dependent student).

As the state’s college access and financial aid agency, we recommend that incoming freshmen who are seeking an adjustment to their financial aid contact each of the schools they are considering attending to discuss the situation. That way, you will be able to consider all the options available to you. Keeping a copy of all materials used to document the change in your financial situation will save you time in providing information to each school.

If you have not yet filed your FAFSA and are planning on attending school in 2020-21, you should complete it as soon as possible to take advantage of state and possibly institutional aid for which you might be eligible. If the 2018 tax returns you will be required to use to complete the FAFSA do not reflect your current financial situation, once you have completed the FAFSA you should contact each school you are interested in attending to discuss your changed circumstances.

There is free assistance available to help you through this process so you don’t have to navigate it alone or give up on your college plans. In addition to your school’s financial aid office, you can contact the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), and especially our ISACorps members, to help answer questions and assist you in preparing the materials you need to document your changed circumstances. Once you receive your new financial aid offers, you can use our online financial aid comparison worksheet or work one-on-one with one of our ISACorps members to compare your financial aid offers.

Eric Zarnikow is the executive director of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.


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