Financial aid office helping students impacted by coronavirus


Via Millionasm | Wikimedia Commons

Pitt’s Office of Admissions and Financial Aid encourages students to reach out if they’re facing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Lucy Li and Rebecca Johnson

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The Ohio State University’s Wellness Center found in 2015 that 70% of college students nationwide reported feeling stressed about their finances. This was before the COVID-19 pandemic, which left 22 million Americans without jobs

Pitt’s Office of Admissions and Financial Aid is currently open remotely to provide financial counseling and support to students who have experienced financial hardship because of the pandemic and are unsure of how to pay for their education. Molly Swagler, executive director for enrollment outreach, said students can contact the office by calling 412-624-7488 or emailing [email protected] to discuss their specific circumstances. 

“If a student or family has experienced hardships because of pandemic-related things, they should reach out to the financial aid office,“ Swagler said. “When students reach out to the financial aid office to talk to counselors about their specific needs, the counselors will use whatever they can to help.”

Randy McCready, the executive director of financial aid, said the University is anticipating an increase in the demand for financial aid this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. He added that he hopes the $21.3 million in emergency funding Pitt is set to receive as part of the federal government’s $2.2 trillion coronavirus economic rescue package will help students. Pitt already agreed in early March that it would continue paying student workers and work study employees according to their established work schedules, as well as the 173 student workers laid off by Pitt dining contractor Sodexo with a stipend.

The federal government has included additional assistance to colleges and universities in the CARES act,” McCready said. “We hope this will help incoming students and current students applying for financial aid for next year.”

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said at last Thursday’s Senate Council Meeting that at least half of the $21.3 million will go to emergency financial aid grants for students. Gallagher said Pitt has not received clear guidance about the money, but that the University is hoping to provide details this week regarding how to request grants.

Gallagher said the only guidance Pitt has received is to simultaneously maximize the amount of people who receive aid as well as ensuring that the most needy students receive the most assistance. 

The guidance we have received is to maximize the extent to which that assistance is provided based on those who need it the most but also as broadly as possible,” Gallagher said. “This is a little bit of a contradictory direction, but we’ll try to strike a balance.”

At the meeting, Gallagher also discussed the possibility of expanding financial aid in place of giving a tuition discount. 

If the family needs of those who are coming here are much worse we might have to expand financial aid,” Gallagher said. “Our tendency, like most institutions, is not to give a tuition discount.”

But Gallagher said this topic is discussed nationally and not only at Pitt.

“We’ve been trying to look at the financial aid side and make sure we’re addressing the needs that are being created by these unusual circumstances by trying to bolster that,” Gallagher said. “That being said, this is a big national dialogue. There’s class action lawsuits showing up.”

Gallagher said that many universities do not have the capacity to simultaneously offer increased financial aid packages and tuition discounting. Pitt has already lost $30 to 40 million related to the pandemic thus far, while picking up about $10 million in cost savings. 

“This would be a massive historic shock to burn that candle on both ends,” Gallagher said. “There is simply no capacity to support this.”

Pitt has also established a Student Emergency Fund from a joint effort between the Office of Philanthropic and Alumni Engagement and the Division of Student Affairs. The fund allows undergraduate, graduate and professional students in need of emergency financial assistance to apply for a grant from the fund to cover such expenses. The maximum grant allocated to a single student is $600, and approved allocations are paid via PittPay.

According to the fund’s webpage, SGB will allocate the grants to students to cover costs such as medical necessities, sudden loss of housing, food insecurity, overdue utility bills and unexpected transportation. The fund guidelines do not allow the grants to cover expenses such as tuition, funds to cover lost or stolen items or non-essential personal bills such as credit card and phone bills.

McCready said the process of applying for federal financial aid is the same as previous years. Students can submit their application to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and the University’s counselors will determine the student’s eligibility to receive aid. 

The information from the FAFSA is what financial aid counselors use to determine need-based aid available above what is available to students through federal and state aid,” McCready said. “For example, the Pitt Success Pell Match program matches Pell grants dollar for dollar.”

McCready said the deadline for submitting the FAFSA on June 30 is likely to remain the same. The application opened last October and students must use Pitt’s federal student code, 008815, so the results are delivered to the financial aid office. 

Through the FAFSA, an expected family contribution is determined by taking into account income, assets, taxes paid, household size, household members attending college, dependency status and other variables. At Pitt, financial aid in the form of scholarships, grants, subsidized loans and work study will be awarded to help meet demonstrated financial need. 

But expected family contribution can be adjusted in cases of special circumstances, including death, disability, unemployment of a wage earner, major unreimbursed medical expenses paid for a dependent family member and, sometimes, divorce or separation of parents. 

McCready said students should contact a financial aid counselor to determine if they qualify for the adjustment because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The University of Pittsburgh has a process by which students can ask for consideration for additional funding sources due to special conditions,” McCready said. “The student would work with a financial aid counselor one-on-one to determine the best course of action.”