In the Media
College financial aid troubles follow those who received pandemic unemployment benefits
April 9, 2022
By Ann Carrns
If you received pandemic unemployment benefits, there may be bumps in family members getting financial aid.
Unemployment benefits helped millions of people who lost their jobs in the pandemic, but now the payments may throw a wrench into the college financial aid process.
The disconnect between a pandemic relief program and colleges that are figuring out financial aid could result in less aid for some applicants, student advocates say. Students from families that received jobless benefits in 2020 — particularly if the family filed a tax return early in 2021 — may want to check with college financial aid offices to make sure they are getting the maximum amount.
Here's what to know:
To qualify for financial aid, students and their families fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. The form is the portal to federal need-based Pell grants and student loans, and states and colleges use it to award their own aid.
The FAFSA for the 2022-23 academic year became available Oct. 1 and uses financial information from the 2020 tax year, which is typically reported on tax returns filed in 2021.
Normally, unemployment benefits count as income when calculating a student's eligibility for financial aid. But as part of its pandemic relief effort, the federal government allowed Americans earning less than $150,000 to exclude jobless benefits of up to $10,200 per recipient from their 2020 taxable income. The measure took effect on March 11, 2021 — after many people had already filed their 2020 tax returns and reported their jobless benefits as income.
The Internal Revenue Service said it would automatically make corrections for people who had already filed tax returns and send refunds if necessary. But the potential for confusion on the FAFSA lingers, especially for early tax filers who also use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to complete the form.
In an "alert" updated Feb. 24, the IRS warns FAFSA filers not to use the data tool if they filed their 2020 tax return and didn't exclude any jobless benefits from their income.
"The concern is: Are colleges looking at inflated income?" said Brendan Williams, senior director of consulting at uAspire, a nonprofit organization that seeks to reduce financial barriers to college.
It's unclear how many students may be affected, said Kim Cook, chief executive of the National College Attainment Network.
The Federal Student Aid office has instructed college financial aid administrators to fix the problem if they become aware of it. But administrators may not be able to easily identify affected applications because they don't typically see a breakdown of a family's income, said Karen McCarthy, vice president of public policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
What should families do? Contact their college financial aid office to discuss their concerns and have the jobless benefits removed from income on the FAFSA, said Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert.