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Saturday June 25th

University converts portion of its loans to grants for 2020-2021 academic year

<p>A small group stands near the Old Well behind South Building on Sept. 12, 2020.</p>
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A small group stands near the Old Well behind South Building on Sept. 12, 2020.

A majority of University loans for the 2020-2021 academic year are being converted to grants — meaning students who accepted these loan offers in their financial aid packages will not need to repay them as they usually would. 

Rachelle Feldman, associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid, said that since the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid was able to leverage COVID-19 funding to relieve pressure on University grant money, it was able to further assist students in this way.

The grants aim to relieve stress on students but are limited to students who have already received financial aid packages from the University. 

“We thought it made a lot of sense to help students relieve their minds a little bit about their future loan debt and really sort of bring down their total overall borrowing,” Feldman said. 

To fund the program, Feldman said the office intends to use the federal COVID-19 Economic Relief Bill in addition to working with partners and University development to find private donors. This is also part of an effort called the Carolina Edge, which is aimed at raising $1 billion for student support.

“We’re not at that goal yet, but we have a lot of buy in from the chancellor in the development office that that’s a great goal to keep trying to meet,” Feldman said. 

These grants differ from emergency loans — which are interest-free, short-term loans aimed at helping students in need of temporary funds to pay for rent and living expenses, she said. Emergency loans are not approved to pay for University charges, such as tuition, and must be repaid by their due date.

Meeting additional needs created by the pandemic will require roughly double the funding for students that the University received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. 

Feldman said there are currently no plans for funding or block grants being distributed for the spring semester, as occurred with the coronavirus relief bill during the fall. She said it is unclear when the federal relief bill will be available, but that there is still money for students who request emergency loans.

Noe Brown,director of finance on the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity, said loans being converted to grants is a step forward for the University. But, she said there are more steps that could be taken. 

“I definitely think that’s huge, because the grants allow people to have more financial freedom,” Brown said. “Differentiating between the two definitely causes some problems to arise.”

Through the commission, Brown said she saw confusion on how financial aid and grant money was dispersed. She said UNC needs a better system of communication because finances can be life and death for some people who depend on refunds to pay for rent, textbooks and groceries.

“We even saw in surveys, previously, that students were giving up meal plans just to afford textbooks,” she said. “Students shouldn’t have to do that just because textbooks are unreasonably priced and financial aid isn’t adequate enough.”

She said she wants to see more transparency on how funds are distributed.

“When you have something that’s so important as finances not being understandable and applicable to everyone, it’s a really huge barrier that UNC has to break sooner than later,” Brown said.

Issues with finances are also present with students who have not been able to receive aid during the pandemic.

Alexandra Domrongchai, a junior majoring in American studies, said she was not able to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid during her sophomore and junior years and did not receive CARES Act grant money.

She said her professors and advisers told her to reach out to financial aid to see if she could receive emergency funds, but instead she received links to fill out the FAFSA and was told to file as a dependent when she was unable to do so. She said a different person told her to apply for academic merit scholarships for funding, which can be competitive and time-consuming.

To pay for spring semester tuition, Domrongchai said she nannies close to 30 hours a week. 

She said she tried to apply for emergency loans but was unable to receive the money, since she was not taking full-time classes. 

“Students should not have to beg for financial aid, or should not have to go through hoops to get themselves it,” Domrongchai said. “It shouldn’t be a reward if you’re resourceful."

university@dailytarheel.com

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