How the COVID-19 Crisis Is Affecting Law School Financial Aid
Applicants to law school have always been concerned about how to pay for their education, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating those concerns. How are law school admission and financial aid offices dealing with these changing times? To find out, I recently hosted a webinar with three experts in this area of law school admission: Stephen Brown, assistant dean for enrollment at Fordham University School of Law; Marc Nawrocki, assistant director of financial aid at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law; and Karen Sokol, assistant dean for enrollment services at Seton Hall University School of Law.
Below is a summary of the panel discussion.
How is COVID-19 impacting the financial aid process?
The panelists agreed that most processes related to financial aid applications remain the same, although Sokol reported that the pandemic led her office to add a system that allows students to securely upload sensitive documents, rather than needing to provide paper copies. Overall, the panelists said they are receiving lots of emails from students, and that they miss talking with them in person via drop-in visits as opposed to connecting via email or Zoom conversations.
Are the questions you’re receiving any different from what they have been in the past?
As Brown noted, requests for need-based aid have been similar to prior years, but his office is expecting more of those requests over the summer. Additionally, changes in students’ personal lives are affecting their law school plans. Some students who planned to attend law school part time are now asking if they can move up to full time because they’ve been furloughed or lost a job. On the other side of that coin, some full-time students are being deemed essential by their employers and asking if they can move to part time. And in other situations, employers that were covering students’ law school tuition are no longer able to do so. Brown expects more of that to occur this summer, depending on ever-changing financial conditions. Sokol added that some students and parents are asking about tuition adjustments if the fall semester ends up being totally or partly virtual, rather than in person.
Have requests for deferrals increased?
Our panelists haven’t seen an increase in deferrals, but much of that seems to be riding on whether all or part of the fall semester needs to be held online. Nawrocki reported that the fall semester looks “pretty solid” at his school in that admitted students seem committed to attending, but that there is some uncertainty moving forward about future semesters. This is in line with the preliminary results of a survey LSAC is conducting among applicants to JD and LLM programs for fall 2020; in that survey, 84 percent of respondents said they definitely will (66 percent) or probably will (18 percent) attend law school this fall, while 8 percent said they probably will not or definitely will not attend law school this fall. Of note, though, is that while about two-thirds of respondents said their decision to attend law school in fall 2020 would not be affected if classes were offered online only, 21 percent of respondents said they would defer their enrollment in such a scenario.
How is federal COVID-19 relief affecting law schools and students?
There are two provisions of the recently passed CARES Act that affect law schools. The first is that repayment requirements for federal student loans have been suspended until September 30, with no interest accruing during that time. The second is that colleges, including law schools, have been awarded financial relief on the basis of Pell Grant volume, with 75% of funds awarded based on the institution’s full-time Pell Grant recipients and the other 25% awarded based on total non-Pell enrollment. The schools must spend half of that money on student needs arising from the coronavirus, and each school is determining the best way to distribute it. As Nawrocki noted, the money cannot be used to recruit students, but is intended to provide relief for students who are already enrolled.
Will the COVID-19 situation affect any planned tuition increases?
Currently, our panelists reported no intent to alter tuition plans.
What about cost-of-attendance calculations?
Sokol mentioned that if a school moves to a 100 percent online format for the fall, they may want to examine the components in their cost-of-attendance equation to see if any changes are warranted. Brown pointed out that realistically, we’re talking about one semester out of six semesters of legal education, so any changes to these formulas need to be made with that in mind. The panelists said they still plan to make these calculations on a yearly basis, rather than semester by semester.
Are schools increasing their budgets for need-based aid, or rethinking their approach to counseling, in light of this crisis?
Some schools are reaching out to donors, alumni, and faculty in an attempt to create an “emergency fund” to help students. Others are examining the need-based components of their award packages and trying to find the best way forward. When it comes to counseling, in-person visits have been replaced by online chats and conversations over email; while the hope is that in-person visits can resume soon, the counseling work done virtually is enabling schools to fine-tune these methods so they can be of use even when COVID-19 is under control, our panelists said. Overall, as Brown noted, this is an uncertain and scary time, and schools are talking to students as much as they can, on whatever platforms are available.
Where can students and school representatives get more information?
Our panelists recommended the U.S. Department of Education’s COVID-19 page, AccessLex, studentaid.gov, and LSAC’s COVID-19 resources page. As Nawrocki noted, candidates should not rely solely on online law student forums, where rumors can get started and quickly spread. Go to the source — usually the school(s) to which you’re applying — to get the best information.
Member law schools and prelaw advisors may view the full webinar at the member log-in site.