After I graduated from college, I spent one year working as an admissions counselor for my alma mater. Still high on my own experience, I was thrilled to spend weeks traveling up and down the west coast, talking to high school juniors and seniors about the joys of college life.
For so many seniors today, “college life” will look a little different than the spiel I’d prepared. While many colleges and universities are still admitting students for the fall 2020 term, preparations and expectations will need to be adjusted in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among them, students must understand what their tuition costs do and, more importantly, don’t include, as well as how to prepare for those changes.
What will the fall 2020 term look like?
In the wake of COVID-19, a number of schools will transition to remote learning for the fall; others, however, are considering more complicated options.
In a survey conducted by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, roughly 20% of institutions indicated they would consider a delayed start for the fall term. To maintain in-person classes while protecting their staff and students, many of these universities are modifying their course offerings and hygiene practices, such as requiring students and staff to wear masks in the classroom and restricting large gatherings. As a result, extracurricular activities and athletic programs will also experience substantial changes or, for some universities, be canceled entirely.
In a panel discussion conducted by The New York Times, six professionals in higher education discussed a wide variety of procedures they’re considering for this fall. Dr. Pardis Sabeti, a biology professor at Harvard University, proposed social distancing via “closed circuits,” grouping a certain number of students together in living spaces and classes, much like family units.
Dr. Michael V. Drake, president of Ohio State University, says they’ll maintain close observation of their students, starting with health screens students can conduct themselves, and will also prepare dedicated spaces for isolation and quarantine, should a student contract the coronavirus.
Nevertheless, even as the panelists share their thoughts, they also acknowledge the challenges they’ll face trying to enforce these rules.
“Compliance may not be 100%, but students can behave in ways that point to the fact that college is a big opportunity for them, and they don’t want to risk that opportunity,” says Mary Dana Hinton, incoming president of Hollins University in Virginia. “I do think that some of our students, who understand what is at stake for them, will do anything to be on campus.”
How to afford it
Despite the many adjustments being made by colleges across the nation, there is one significant component that may remain unchanged — tuition.
As the unemployment rate climbs, some students will no longer be able to afford their tuition. At the same time, universities are experiencing tremendous blows of their own, reporting millions of dollars in losses.
“There are already very noticeable financial ramifications for colleges, staff, and students alike and the situation is likely to only get worse for the time being and in the foreseeable future,” says Dr. Mansur Khamitov of the Nanyang Business School at Nanyang Technological University.
With such a dark forecast, universities are anticipating the demand for financial aid to swell this summer, and many worry they won’t be able to meet the growing need.
“While universities and the government are announcing and rolling out relief package measures to support affected students facing financial hardship due to this global pandemic, such measures are not yet widespread or standard,” Dr. Khamitov adds.
Nevertheless, colleges nationwide are doing all they can to address the financial circumstances of their students. Some universities will cut planned increases in tuition costs, while others delay tuition for undergraduates until 2021. There are even some schools committing to cover tuition entirely.
To determine how your college experience and cost will change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, start by contacting your financial aid office.
Contact your financial aid office
According to The Princeton Review, 99% of families said financial aid would be necessary to pay for college. Consequently, though many schools are struggling to recover from the losses experienced in the spring, they will likely have to make additional concessions to keep their institutions alive.
To learn how your college will adapt and what your tuition costs will look like this fall, contact your financial aid office and discuss the options detailed in the sections below.
“I would recommend just about everybody go back to the colleges they may be interested in and ask for more money,” says Shannon Vasconcelos, a college finance consultant at Bright Horizons. “The worst a college will do is say, ‘No, sorry we have no more money for you.’”
Returning students: Request emergency relief aid
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27, 2020, designated roughly $12 billion in federal funding for higher education institutions.
Of that $12 billion, the bill stated half should be used for emergency grants to currently enrolled college students. For current college students that have not yet received funds from this bill, contact your financial aid office to discuss your eligibility.
For undocumented students and international students, who are ineligible for federal financial aid, emergency funding may be available through private relief funds like the COVID-19 Student Emergency Aid Initiative or The Institute of International Education’s Emergency Student Fund. Regardless of your circumstances, be sure to contact your college to discuss potential emergency aid options.
Update your FAFSA and CSS profiles
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the College Scholarship Service (CSS) can help students apply for a variety of types of financial aid all at once — including scholarships, grants, student loans, and work-study jobs.
The FAFSA will help your school determine how much federal aid you are eligible to receive, while the CSS profile can be used for non-federal aid. The primary reason these resources are especially important today is because of a section called “expected family contribution” or “EFC.” If your parent has lost income as a result of COVID-19 and can no longer contribute to your education as they would have before the pandemic began, you can use your FAFSA and CSS profile to communicate those changes and potentially receive additional aid.
Apply for private grants and scholarships
Grants and scholarships are forms of student aid that do not have to be repaid. The difference between the two, generally, is grants are often awarded on the basis of financial need, while scholarships are merit-based.
In addition to the funds available through your FAFSA and CSS profiles, you can also apply for private grants and scholarships through a variety of platforms. When I was preparing for college, I used sites like FastWeb and Scholarships.com, and, as an admissions counselor, I recommended students do the same.
You can also utilize resources like the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) to find grants, scholarships, and student aid programs within your state (generally applicable to students attending in-state universities, though this is not always the case).
Furthermore, consider tools like CareerOneStop. In addition to their “8,000 scholarships, fellowships, grants, and financial aid award opportunities,” you can also search for training opportunities and resources for the career you’d like to pursue.
End with student loans
Unlike grants and scholarships, student loans will need to be paid back in the future, so do your best to exhaust all other options before ending your search for financial aid here.
Start by completing your FAFSA to apply for federal loans. Once your school has received your FAFSA, or updated FAFSA, they will notify you of the aid you are eligible to receive, typically through an “award letter,” and the process for accepting those loans.
Finally, research private student loans last. Federal loans have a significant advantage over most private options — interest rates. With federal loans, interest rates are fixed for the life of the loan. Private loans, on the other hand, tend to offer higher and more varied rates, as these lenders, typically banks and credit unions, set their own terms.
There are some lenders like Earnest, however, that offer competitive fixed rates and no application or origination fees. Nevertheless, make sure to research private lenders like Earnest thoroughly before taking on additional debt.
Returning students: In light of the pandemic, current borrowers of federal student loans have been automatically placed in an administrative forbearance, which allows you to temporarily stop making your monthly loan payment, and interest rates have been temporarily set at 0%. To determine if your loans are eligible, contact your loan servicer.
Is it worth it to attend college this fall?
For some universities, adjusted schedules and added financial aid won’t be enough to attract students this fall.
In fact, a student poll by the Art & Science Group revealed nearly one in six graduating seniors will likely take a gap year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Most university students choose a university in part for the campus life and the university experience,” says Jeremy Shaki, co-founder and CEO of Lighthouse Labs. “With that being on hold, and most universities not doing nearly enough to consider how to recreate more of that online, I believe the merits of university will be harshly questioned, and the price point will be too high considering the loss in value.”
However, though a large percentage of students are preparing to take a year off, others are choosing schools that are better equipped to meet their financial needs.
Robert Franek, editor-in-chief of The Princeton Review and author of “The Best 385 Colleges,” says more students and families will opt for local, more affordable public schools this fall.
At the same time, some students will prioritize colleges with established online programs instead. “Some students and families understandably balk at paying high-touch residential college tuition for a low-touch experience,” said John Pryor, founder of Pryor Education Insights, who suggests institutions like Western Governors University or Southern New Hampshire University as reputable alternatives.
As families wrestle with the implications of lost jobs and unstable economic conditions during the pandemic, students must also take action to protect their education and finances this fall.
In preparation for the months ahead, incoming freshmen and returning upperclassmen should contact their financial aid office to request additional funding. Students should also pursue grant and scholarship opportunities before resorting to increased loans. Additionally, they may want to consider alternative institutions, such as those with established online programs and less expensive tuition costs, or examine the benefits of a gap year instead.
Nevertheless, those who decide to pursue higher education through the remainder of 2020 should fully comprehend what their aid includes and requires — both this fall and into the future.
As a former admissions counselor myself, I encourage you to acknowledge the fragility of our current economy and consider the potential impact this may have on your own employment and education. Understand that “college life” will likely exclude certain opportunities and activities for the sake of widespread public health. Finally, think beyond the fall and consider how the semester will impact your future plans and goals.