GUILFORD COUNTY — Some graduating high school seniors who experienced disruptions during the ongoing pandemic will be rewarded with a chance to attend a community college without going into debt.

The Longleaf Commitment grant program recently announced by Gov. Roy Cooper will allow graduating high school students to further their education for two more years at institutions like Guilford Technical Community College or any of the other 57 community colleges in the state.

Lisa Koretoff, GTCC director of financial aid, described it as an exciting opportunity for this year’s high school graduates and said she’s hopeful the grant program will be extended past the spring 2023 semester.

“These students now can essentially attend tuition- and fee-free with these funds,” Koretoff said.

GTCC provided $50 million in financial aid this year, but students often took out loans because not enough grants were available, Koretoff said.

“Now with the Longleaf Commitment, that changes the ballgame,” Koretoff said. “It’s going to make a lot of students who were not grant-eligible in the past now be able to have the ‘free money,’ the money that doesn’t have to be repaid, to go to college.”

High school students may be eligible to receive this grant for tuition and fees toward a degree or to attain transfer credit. Full-time eligible students can receive $700 to $2,800 per year, for a total of two years. Less than full-time students also may receive a partial award.

The funding is part of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief plan to address challenges students and educators have faced inside and outside the classroom over the course of the pandemic. High school seniors can apply for the grant for the 2021-22 school year through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. They will have to reapply for the 2022-23 school year to keep getting it for the second year.

“The easy thing is that it’s going to be the same application they used to apply for everything else, and that’s the FAFSA,” Koretoff said. “They’ve outlined that it’s going to be an expanded range of eligibility, based on the estimated family contribution figure.”

Colleges use that family contribution figure, based on FAFSA applications, to determine what kinds of aid students qualify for.

Previously, if a student had a family contribution figure between zero and $8,500, the student would be eligible for federal and state grant funding for college, Koretoff said. The new grant program raises that figure to $15,000, making more students eligible.

Koretoff noted more financial aid assistance is available for GTCC students than ever due to the pandemic. The first Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds were authorized as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act in March 2020.

“We helped students with emergency costs they were incurring for having to convert from being in-person students to being at a distance,” Koretoff said. “We knew a lot of those students lost their jobs or had their hours reduced and were really in a bind.”

HEERF grants can be used for a range of student needs including living expenses, child care and health care. Students taking classes can apply for grants by submitting the FAFSA and completing a short online application saying he or she was affected by the campus disruption due to the pandemic. Awards range from $125 to $1,000, based on a student’s enrollment and estimated family contribution. New GTCC students will also be eligible for HEERF awards during the fall 2021 semester.

This past spring, GTCC was able to offer emergency relief funds to every student enrolled in a curriculum or continuing education program who took a certain number of courses, Koretoff said. When asked what she would tell a potential student who thinks he could not afford attending GTCC, Koretoff was quick to respond.

“I have been in financial aid for 34 years,” Koretoff said. “There has never been a better time to come back to school, in my opinion, with the amount of funds that are now available to students to help make it possible.”

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