What Military-Connected Students Need to Know During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Soldier studying.
(Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall PAO photo by Nell King)

Mike Saunders is a U.S. Army Veteran and Director of Military & Consumer Policy at Veterans Education Success. Tanya Ang is Vice President of Veterans Education Success and has worked in higher education supporting military-connected students for almost 20 years.

From student loans to the GI Bill, the coronavirus (COVID-19) is affecting millions of veterans and military-connected students in higher education. During these turbulent times, our organization, Veterans Education Success, is supporting policies and consumer protections to help you navigate unprecedented waters. Here are some concerns we’ve heard from you, what we recommend and how we’re responding.

Stay Healthy During Social Distancing

Bars, restaurants, social events and even non-essential workplaces in many areas have been shut down. Everyone is ‘socially distancing’ themselves as best as they can. These are difficult times, especially for the most vulnerable, so be sure you know how to get help when you need it. Remember, by staying home, you are helping the fight against COVID-19.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has an updated Frequently Asked Question page for veterans who may require treatment for COVID-19, access to emergency care, or need prescriptions refilled.

This time of uncertainty can be difficult and taxing on our emotional well-being. If you're a veteran in crisis or concerned about one, connect with VA’s Crisis Line responders for confidential help. VA’s service is private, free, and available 24/7.

To connect with a Veterans Crisis Line responder anytime day or night:

  • Call 800-273-8255, then select 1
  • Start a confidential chat
  • Text 838255
  • If you have hearing loss, call TTY: 800-799-4889

If You’re Experiencing Economic Hardship

If you have recently been laid off or are suffering financial constraints, there are resources available, including VFW’s emergency grant program and Disabled American Veterans’ grants for disabled veterans. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America also offers help through its Rapid Response Referral Program.

Whatever you do, avoid taking a high-interest payday loan, or anything over 36 percent. Those trap you in a cycle of debt that is extremely hard to escape.

If you are a VA healthcare-eligible veteran experiencing homelessness, you may qualify for VA’s HUD-VASH program.

Tips for Studying While Your Kids Are Home

Being a parent and trying to balance school is challenging in the best of times. Having your kids home and unable to go anywhere, while also trying to meet your school deadlines, can feel overwhelming. There are free, high-quality programs available to help you through this time:

  • Khan Academy offers free high-quality online K-12 education and some college courses.
  • Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization, rates age-appropriate TV shows, movies, and games.
  • The New York Times published a list of free websites and television programs to keep your kids entertained and learning at the same time.

Don’t give up - even if it doesn’t always feel like it, you are setting an example for your kids. They are watching and learning as they see you put in the hard work to accomplish your goals.

Your Monthly Housing Allowance (MHA) Will Not Change If Your School Moves Programs Online

Colleges everywhere are moving classes online, but we’ve taken steps to ensure this will not impact your MHA. Due to the urgency of the situation, we worked with other military and veteran service organizations to get a law passed quickly by Congress to ensure your MHA is protected during this time of national crisis. On March 21, President Trump signed it into law. The law ensures the MHA for students using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Fry Scholarship, and Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment (VR&E) benefits remains the same for students whose programs were moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

RelatedWhat Happens if Your School Switches to Online Classes or Closes as a Reaction to COVID-19?

It is important to know, however, that if you switch to a college program that has always been taught online, your MHA amount will change to a lower rate. For any students who were taking fully online programs to begin with, your housing allowance will stay the same.

It’s Easier to Apply for VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) Program

VA’s VR&E program has made it easier for you to apply for VR&E, or submit any necessary documentation, by changing its policy to accept a typed signature, as opposed to a “wet” signature for any form that requires a signature. VA is also encouraging VR&E counselors to provide tele-counseling in lieu of in-person visits to a VA Regional Office.

RelatedVA Makes Changes to Vocational Rehab Program Due to COVID-19

We’re Protecting VA Work-Study Income

Many veterans and military-connected students have expressed concerns about how this pandemic will affect your VA work-study jobs. We are working with allies in Congress to protect your work-study income for jobs you cannot perform during the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. House of Representatives introduced the “Student Veteran Coronavirus Response Act of 2020” that will guarantee VA work-study students' income, protect GI Bill entitlement if a school closes, and much more. We’re working to make sure this passes Congress soon.

How to Handle Your Student Loans

The U.S. Education Department has temporarily set the interest rates on all federally held student loans at zero percent and created a new forbearance option for many federal student loans for any borrowers who want to pause payments until September 30, 2020. You should contact your “loan servicer” (the company you pay each month) to confirm your loans have been put in forbearance. This special administrative forbearance allows you to stop making monthly payments but still be counted as making qualifying payments towards Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) or Income-Driven Repayment (IDR). Also know, this does not apply to private student loans.

Make sure you know your options today so you can avoid default or delinquency on your loans. There are options available and free advice from our staff at Help@VetsEdSuccess.Org. You can contact your loan servicer to lower or temporarily stop your loan payments, including:

Deferment: This postpones your federal student loan payments and no interest will accrue on subsidized loans (Perkins, Direct Subsidized, Stafford, and the subsidized portions of Direct Consolidation Loans and FFEL loans. Ask your loan servicer what kind you have). Note: deferment means you are not making any qualified payments towards Public Service Loan Forgiveness/Income-Driven Repayment loan forgiveness.

Forbearance: This postpones or reduces your loan payments, but any interest, for either subsidized or unsubsidized loans, normally continues to accrue during the period of forbearance, usually for up to 12 months. The Education Department agreed to waive interest for six months, so interest shouldn’t accrue during this time. Note: the interest waiver does not apply to commercially-held Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP) loans; it applies only to Education Department-held FFELP loans. Once the current halt on interest for federal student loans due to COVID-19 ends, you will start to accrue interest on loans while they are in forbearance.

Income-driven repayment: This allows you to make payments on your federal student loans based on your income -- which could allow you to make payments as low as $0. After 20 or 25 years of payments (depending on the types of loans you have and when you took them out), have any remaining balance on your loans forgiven.

Learn more at the Education Department’s website here and Veterans Education Success’ website here. Also, check out the Repayment Estimator to help you calculate the short- and long-term costs to see if an income-driven repayment plan or a student loan deferment makes more sense for you.

Be sure to check out USAA Education Foundation’s tips on student loans and other debt here.

Never pay a company to lower your loans. Those are scams.

How to Handle Private Student Loans

It’s critical to note that the Education Department’s action on student loan interest applies only to federal student loans. Private lenders are not bound to follow it; they are only bound by the terms of the promissory note that you signed when you took out the loan and their internal company policies. Congress’ COVID-19 legislation does not change that.

Also, unlike federal student loan borrowers, private student loan borrowers are not entitled to defer private student loans as a matter of right. Again, the terms of your private loan may provide for it; contact your loan servicer to find out.

You enjoy more protections and rights when you borrow money for college from the federal government, but if you feel like your servicer is not being fair or following the terms of the loan, you can always file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or reach out to us for free help (email: Help@VetsEdSuccess.org)

If You’re Already in Default on Your Loans or Have a GI Bill “Overpayment”

We are working with Congress to halt all debt collection, public and private – including VA debt collection – until the national emergency is over. The Education Department has already announced it will stop collecting on defaulted federal student loans and has ordered private collection firms to stop pursuing borrowers “until further notice.” Congress’ COVID-19 package does prevent any emergency payments to you from being garnished by the federal government for outstanding debts.

We’re Here If You Need Us

Even during Coronavirus, we are up and running and available to answer your questions. Our free lawyers and experts are available at Help@VetsEdSuccess.Org. We will also continue to work with our allies at national military and veterans’ organizations to encourage Congress to do more for students.

We’re going to get through this, and we are here to help you.

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