Graduation cap on money

Several higher education institutions in Virginia used federal pandemic stimulus funding to wipe out student bills.

MARTINSVILLE – They could almost buy two 2021 Honda Civics outright. That’s how deep in debt the average American goes to get their college degree.

In an effort to help alleviate that burden, some Virginia colleges recently offered financial assistance toward outstanding balances, using federal coronavirus funding.

Patrick & Henry Community College in Martinsville sent out letters about debt relief in May, giving 71 scholars an unexpected surprise.

Students with a GPA of 2.0 or greater who had an outstanding debt to the school on or after March 13, 2020 suddenly held a zero-dollar balance. That wiped more than $41,000 off of student accounts, said Chris Wikstrom, director of institutional research and effectiveness.

The move also helped financially struggling students continue their education. 

“State policy will not allow a student to enroll if they have an outstanding debt. We have students who are prevented from continuing their education because of a relatively minor amount of debt,” said Jack Hanbury, vice president of finance and administration. “We had federal funds from [stimulus] available to pay off the outstanding debt to allow these students to continue their education.”

Lawayne Perkins, a student who received the debt forgiveness, expressed her gratitude.

“My reaction was that I was very grateful,” Perkins said. “I wanted to take a class that summer, but before I could register I would have had to pay the debt I had. Because of the pandemic, my job wasn’t what it had been. Because P&HCC took away the debt, I was able to take the class that summer and now I’m on track to finish my program.”

A Welcomed Surprise 

Last week, Reynolds Community College, located in Richmond, wiped nearly $400,000 of debt for nearly 500 students enrolled on or after March 13, 2020.

Dr. Terricita Sass, vice president of enrollment management and student success, said that the school looked at the student population and realized that 488 individuals had varying degrees of account balances. Some cases ranged from a few bucks’ worth of library fees to hundreds of dollars’ worth of tuition fees. 

Of those nearly 500 individuals, 68% were Pell Grant recipients who had no outside contributions to help them pay for their education. 

Ironically, once students received the news that they had a zero balance, many thought it was a hoax. Several called the school with inquiries.

“One particular student got the letter [and] told their parents. Their parents didn’t believe them. So the parent called and because of privacy, we could not discuss with the parent about the student’s bill. So the parent calls back. And it’s the parent on the phone and the student on the phone. And the parent said, ‘Okay, explain this to me. Do I understand this correctly?’ And they were so thrilled,” Sass said. “You know, we’re not face-to-face, but the emotion that was in both of their voices, they were both so exuberant, so grateful. They couldn’t believe it. It’s like they had hit the lottery.” 

Sass said the action played into the college’s mission of helping students move along their path. 

“Erasing student balances because of the devastating impact of COVID-19 is more than a gesture,” Sass said. “Reynolds is committed to removing as many barriers as possible and we know that the financial challenges faced by many of our students is one that can derail their education and future. We hope that this act will enable students to move forward in pursuit of their dreams.” 

Paying the Balance

In July, students at Virginia State University in Petersburg had quite the surprise. The school cleared all unpaid tuition, fee, room and board balances and more for students enrolled during the pandemic impact period.

That means for students who attended VSU in the spring, summer, fall and winter semesters in 2020 and the spring 2021 semester, the balance for those courses reads $0.00. 

“We care about our students and their academic success and want to provide them the privilege of moving forward with a zero balance,” said Dr. Donald Palm, provost and senior vice president of academic and student affairs. “We believe that relieving them from these balances will provide much-needed relief that will allow our scholars to focus more intently on their academics and degree completion.”

Students eligible for the offering included non-degree, noncredit, undergraduate, graduate, doctoral, continuing education, undocumented and international students and students who graduated or withdrew during the pandemic. The payoff applied to VSU balances, not loans owed to outside entities.

Nearby Virginia Union University in Richmond awarded approximately $6.35 million to 1,344 students in a debt elimination effort.

Eliminating Debt 

Students at Hampton University also received a surprising letter earlier this month. In the note, the school’s president, William Harvey, acknowledged the hardships students faced during the pandemic, calling the global health crisis a “horrendous experience.”

The president also noted the financial hardships many students faced during the pandemic. In light of those monetary burdens, Harvey announced that HU would pay the outstanding balances undergraduate students enrolled in the spring 2021 semester owed. 

“It is our hope that these funds will assist our students in continuing their Hampton experience and enjoying a seamless transition back to campus,” Harvey said. 

Clearing Student Debt for Spring 2021

Ahead of the fall semester, Old Dominion University joined the growing number of schools to eliminate some student debt accrued during the pandemic. 

For ODU students who attended during the spring 2021 semester, their student account balance for that term equals zero.

“Old Dominion is committed to helping our students reach their academic potential,” said Donald Stansberry, vice president for student engagement and enrollment services. “At a time when many families are facing financial stress because of the pandemic, these CARES Act funds will help eliminate significant roadblocks so students can continue on their academic journeys.”
Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com