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How college students can get emergency financial aid

College student sits in a lecture hall with a mask on
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College student sits in a lecture hall with a mask on
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The coronavirus pandemic has made life more difficult for many who are pursuing higher education, especially those who were already struggling to juggle studies with bills and other expenses. If you’re a college student who’s in a tough financial spot, there are resources available. Below are four types of emergency financial aid available to college students, along with relief options for student loan borrowers.

What emergency financial aid is available for college students?

In response to the coronavirus, many colleges and organizations have made emergency funding available. Here’s what to look for.

Emergency grants

In light of the COVID-19 crisis, college students have a new financial aid option that could benefit them. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act established the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) with $14 billion dollars worth of aid for eligible colleges and universities. An additional $21.2 billion in emergency aid was made available via HEERF II in January 2021, and an additional $39.6 billion was made available via HEERF III in March 2021.

Colleges and universities that received funds from HEERF, HEERF II or HEERF III must pay a certain percentage of those funds to students in the form of emergency financial grants. Students can apply the funds from emergency grants toward eligible expenses, such as:

  • Food.
  • Housing.
  • Health care.
  • Child care.
  • Course materials.
  • Technology.

How to apply: Participating schools must disclose information about available emergency grants on their websites. You can also contact the financial aid office at your university to learn more about eligibility requirements and to request an application.

Emergency student loans

In addition to grants, some schools may provide emergency loans to students with pressing financial needs. Just keep in mind that, unlike grants, you must repay emergency loans at some point in the future. So even if you qualify, it’s important to make sure that you understand the loan terms and feel confident that you’ll be able to repay the debt once payments become due.

You might also have access to any aid that you qualified for but didn’t accept when you filled out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If your financial circumstances have changed since you submitted your FAFSA, you may be able to update your application and possibly receive additional federal student loans.

How to apply: Visit your school’s financial aid office to discover if you have any additional options for student loans — emergency or otherwise.

Food programs

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal nutrition program that provides electronic benefits you can use like cash to buy food. Even if you didn’t qualify for these benefits in the past, you might be able to use them now. In response to the pandemic, more students are eligible for SNAP benefits on a temporary basis.

According to The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, students are able to qualify for SNAP benefits under the following circumstances:

  • You’re eligible to participate in a federal or state work-study program during the school year per your financial aid offer.
  • Your expected family contribution is $0 for the current academic year per your Student Aid Report.

Aside from federal benefits, your school may offer short-term solutions. Some schools will provide dining vouchers or food pantries for students without funds to purchase food.

How to apply: Visit the USDA website to learn more and fill out an application for SNAP benefits in your state. You can also reach out to your local SNAP office and your school’s financial aid office for additional assistance.

Housing assistance

About half of college students experience housing insecurity, according to a report from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. Even so, there aren’t many options for housing assistance at most colleges and universities. If you need a place to live, you can ask your school’s housing office or student affairs department if there are any on-campus rooms or residency programs for unhoused students or those going through housing insecurity. If your school doesn’t have this type of program, it might have other resources to refer you to, like local nonprofits, shelters or another alternative solution.

How to apply: Start by asking your school’s housing office what on-campus assistance programs are available. If your school can’t help you, look into local nonprofits.

Relief options for student loans

If you’re currently enrolled in school, there’s a good chance that you aren’t required to begin the student loan repayment process yet. Most federal student loan payments will remain in a deferment status until you graduate.

Some private lenders, however, do require you to begin the repayment process immediately after loan disbursement. Check with your lender or consult your loan agreement for details on your individual loan repayment requirements.

If you have student loan payments due that you can’t afford to pay, there may be some other ways to find temporary financial relief.

  • Administrative forbearance: In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has provided several relief measures to federal student loan borrowers. Both payments and interest fees are paused on eligible federal student loans until Aug. 31, 2022.
  • Hardship arrangements: Private student loan borrowers don’t enjoy the same benefits as federal student loan borrowers under the CARES Act (and subsequent extensions). But your lender might offer you a hardship forbearance or other loan relief options on a short-term basis if you can’t afford to keep up with your payments at this time. Reach out to your lender as soon as possible if you are experiencing financial challenges that could affect your ability to repay your debt as promised.

Factors to consider before taking out emergency financial aid

Emergency aid can be a lifesaver when you’re a student in a financial bind. Yet there are a few drawbacks you should keep in mind as you research your options.

  • You’ll need to meet eligibility requirements to qualify for grants, loans or other types of financial aid.
  • If you qualify for an emergency grant or emergency loan from your school, it may not be large enough to meet all of your immediate financial needs.
  • Federal and private student loans may offer you more cash, but you’ll have to repay the money you borrow at some point in the future.
  • Before you can qualify for private student loans, a lender will want to check your credit and income.

Next steps

If you’re facing a financial crisis, don’t wait to ask for help. Your school’s financial aid office in particular can be a great resource to either provide you with some immediate relief or help you find resources to weather the storm.

But the financial aid office might not be your only stop. Check with your housing and student affairs departments to see if they can offer any resources as well. Your circumstances might make you eligible for different types of programs or benefits that you’re not aware of yet. If you’re struggling, don’t push it aside. There are people who want to help you find the right path to get out of your tough situation.

Written by
Michelle Black
Contributing writer
Michelle Lambright Black is a credit expert with over 19 years of experience, a freelance writer and a certified credit expert witness. In addition to writing for Bankrate, Michelle's work is featured with numerous publications including FICO, Experian, Forbes, U.S. News & World Report and Reader’s Digest, among others.
Edited by
Student loans editor