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Local Colleges Helping Students Navigate Financial Aid Process

By SCOTT

McCLOSKEY

Staff Writer

Two local institutions of higher education are providing a variety of meeting options to help counsel new students as they navigate through the financial aid process.

That process has changed a bit due to the COVID-19 pandemic, yet that hasn’t stopped those schools from providing help.

Katie Cooper, director of financial aid and enrollment center for West Liberty University, said WLU’s office continues reaching out to help students work their way through the maze of obtaining financial aid through a variety of ways, including virtual online meetings.

Since the number of on-campus visitors is currently limited due to the pandemic, West Liberty has taken that crucial information to the students. The university has put together a number of online meeting options, where they’ll spend time helping students fill out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

“We work with local high schools and we also put on our own programs as well here at West Liberty,” Cooper said. “We’ve done several virtual meetings with local high schools to help students complete their FAFSA (forms) and we have more (meetings) going on into February and March”.

Financial aid counselors will continue meeting virtually with both groups of students scheduled through area high schools and individually with students and their parents to wade through the financial aid application waters.

Cooper said students looking for financial assistance can reach out to their high school counselors or contact the West Liberty University financial aid office directly for help.

“What concerns me is students that are graduating from high school this year aren’t completing everything they need to complete, like the FAFSA (forms), as early as they normally do,” Cooper said. “I think that’s part of just not being in school. So student loan applications are actually down at this point.”

According to the Higher Education Policy Commission, as of Feb. 3, FAFSA applications from West Virginia students were down nearly 22 percent compared to last year. Organizations are trying different ways to boost those numbers. In December, the Education Alliance announced the “Cool Cash for College” contest, where students who filled out a FAFSA form would be placed in a drawing for prizes.

Kanawha County enlisted the help of actress and Charleston native Jennifer Garner to spread the word of the importance of filling out those forms.

Karen Hunt, Bethany College’s vice president for enrollment, said the college continues to help students look for financial aid in a number of ways.

“No question, financial aid and the cost of college is a primary concern for students and families,” she said. “We assist students in multiple ways by using social media posts, direct emails, one-to-one counseling (via Zoom or phone during the pandemic) and our website to help educate people on the process and the aid available to them.”

In the past, Bethany has regularly offered on-campus group and individual meetings to discuss financial aid. This year, Hunt said, they have relied on Zoom and Facebook Live events. In addition, she said all graduating seniors with loans are required by the U.S. Department of Education to complete online exit counseling to understand their loans and repayment options and obligations.

“Additionally, Bethany College has a tradition of gathering the seniors together for an event called ‘Senior One Stop,’ where students handle the business of graduation, including learning about their repayment obligations to supplement the Department of Education exit counseling,” Hunt said.

She said plans for this year’s event are in progress.

For those struggling to meet their federal student loan obligations following college, there continues to be some positive news. The U.S. Department of Education has announced the student loan forbearance period will extend through Sept. 30 in response to the COVID-19 national emergency. The announcement comes after all federal student loan interest rates were set to zero and automatically entered borrowers into administrative forbearance, allowing them to defer payments without financial penalty since the onset of the pandemic back in March of 2020.

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