From the Desk: CARES Act funds help support students during pandemic

Every year, the Office of Student Financial Assistance disburses millions of dollars to students who demonstrate financial need. In partnership with Student Central, we work with students and families to understand their unique financial situation, guide them through the financial aid process, and explore the options available to them. Our goal is always to help students access an IU education in a way that makes financial sense for their family and their future.

Jackie Kennedy-FletcherView print quality image
Jackie Kennedy-Fletcher. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Amid the chaos of 2020, that goal has remained the same.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unforeseen challenges for many, including job loss, medical expenses and a lack of access to community resources. As families' financial situations changed in light of these challenges, we saw an increase in the number of aid appeals based on a loss of income or change in earnings, and we heard from students in need of money to help cover their basic living expenses.

Thanks to the federal CARES Act passed in the spring, IU Bloomington received $12 million in CARES funding to mitigate the financial impact of the pandemic for students. In partnership with the Student Advocates Office in the Division of Student Affairs and the Office of the Bursar, we have awarded Emergency Financial Aid Grants to nearly 9,000 students, with a maximum award of $1,500. The Division of Student Affairs established a smooth application process for the emergency funding, and the bursar team worked to ensure there was no lag time in getting these much-needed funds to students.

In addition to posting the funds to students' accounts, my team also helped guide students through an unfamiliar process. Many of the students affected had not previously received federal or state financial aid, so they had never completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. By completing this important step in the emergency fund application, they also now have a FAFSA on file for the current school year, which could help them qualify for additional aid if their financial situation changes again. (I encourage every student to file a FAFSA every year for this reason.)

The students we worked with were grateful for guidance during an incredibly stressful time. On top of their economic distress, these students were also affected academically and emotionally. We heard their concerns and counseled them on their aid options. We often connected them with MoneySmarts as well, to help them continue developing a financial plan.

Occasionally we were presented with special cases in which a student did not qualify for the emergency funding based on a technicality or unique circumstance. In those cases, we stepped in to holistically assess the student's eligibility and use our professional judgment. As always, we did everything in our power to help students access the aid they needed, while staying well within the guidelines for federal and state dollars.

In a year that has brought so many challenges -- financial and otherwise -- I am proud that my team in the Office of Student Financial Assistance and our wonderful partners in the Student Advocates Office and the Office of the Bursar worked nimbly and collaboratively to help the students who needed it most.

We are sure to see continued effects as the pandemic endures and the economic recession deepens. For the students who dream of coming to IU and those who are already here, we understand the financial realities that are part of the college journey, and we remain committed to providing financial assistance wherever possible -- whatever the future may hold.

Jackie Kennedy-Fletcher is director of the Office of Student Financial Assistance.