AUGUSTA — While on the telephone with the University of Maine at Augusta, student Sarah Merriman anticipated a feeling of despair.

Given the amount of money she owed from the previous semester, she did not think she would be able to enroll for the spring 2022 semester.

Sarah Merriman expects to finish her degree at the University of Maine at Augusta sooner than expected because UMA officials have allocated federal coronavirus relief money to help students pay school debt. Photo courtesy of Sarah Merriman

Merriman, majoring in mental health and human resources, decided to go back to school after her brother died from a drug overdose. Her return to the classroom came eight years after she had received her associate’s degree.

After the past semester, Merriman owed $1,200 from two classes, and it was coming time to register for the spring semester.

“They said the balance was $0,” Merriman said. “I was like, ‘What?'”

Merriman was unaware UMA officials had allocated federal coronavirus relief money to help students with school debt and, in some cases, forgiven debt for students who were enrolled from March 2020 to March 2021. Merriman takes two classes a semester while also working full time.

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She is now on track to graduate sooner than she predicted.

UMA received multiple rounds of coronavirus relief aid. The university used $1.6 million in emergency grants for students and $900,000 for debt relief for students impacted by the pandemic. During the spring 2022 semester, an additional $1.7 million is to be distributed to students.

As of May 2021, UMA had received $5.9 million from the federal government.

Jonathan Henry, vice president of enrollment and marketing at UMA, said although the university is not the only one to give students a portion of the coronavirus relief funding in the form of aid, UMA is one of the few colleges in the nation to give it specifically for debt relief.

The idea was spearheaded by efforts historically Black colleges and universities made to relieve student debt by using federal coronavirus aid.

“We followed that model,” Henry said. “It took a bit to see how much we can afford, how much makes sense to do and how much we can maximize student debt relief. I’ve been doing this for 35 years and I’ve never seen federal dollars with the intent to pay off student debt.”

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The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 encourages colleges and universities to use the federal money to help reduce financial barriers to help students continue their educations. It also designates aid that must go to students.

In October 2021, UMA sent payments to 2,024 students, ranging from $400 to $600, depending on the number of credits a student was taking. Later that month, 954 students received additional money if they had experienced financial hardship due to the pandemic. The payments totaled more than $1.64 million.

And in December 2021, UMA provided relief to 717 students who were enrolled from spring 2020 through spring 2021. Of those students, 544 were able to pay the full amount of their accumulated student debt, and 173 were able to pay part. The maximum payment a student received for debt payment was $2,400.

Henry said UMA cannot require students use the money to pay college debt, but he expected about 60% used it for that purpose, or to pay for upcoming semesters, books or other costs.

Henry also said he heard from many UMA students after school officials decided to give them the federal money. Some students said the funding was just enough to get them out of a financial hole.

At UMA, an average class for Merriman costs $900, after taxes. If a student owes more than $1,000, he or she is unable to enroll in classes for the next semester. In Merriman’s case, she owed $1,200 from the past semester and had debt from her associate’s degree.

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“I’m so excited to be back in school again,” she said. “I told my adviser: ‘Whoever did this, thank you. I really appreciate it.'”

Henry said that from the fall 2021 semester to the spring 2022 semester, a bit more than 80% of students reenrolled, where the rate is usually 80%.

In Maine, the rate of students enrolling at colleges and universities dropped by an average of 6% in fall 2021 versus fall 2019. Henry said UMA’s enrollment had decreased by less than 2%.

“I’m convinced some of that was because we did the emergency aid,” he said.

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