What’s the impact of rethinking my college plans because of the coronavirus pandemic?

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The coronavirus pandemic’s impact on higher education could mean an adjustment to your college expectations, from more distance learning to deferred admission. Here’s how to evaluate your options — and their budget implications — to make the right decision for you.

Our College & COVID-19 series is part of our commitment to students and families during this time of uncertainty. Our goal with this series is to provide the resources, information, and guidance you need to help you successfully continue your college journey.

It’s a new year, which means taking time to map out your goals for college in 2021. As you make decisions about your education, colleges across the country are still making adjustments under these unusual circumstances. So whether you’re making plans to start your college education, continue it, or pursue an advanced degree, here are several steps to consider as you are deciding what’s best for you.

Contact your school

With situations, information, and available resources constantly evolving, there’s no one-size-fits-all for how colleges are handling the coronavirus pandemic. You’ll want to contact schools you’re considering attending and find out how they’re making changes during COVID-19.

The way classes are conducted has changed for a majority of colleges, with most going online. In addition to that, textbooks are moving away from physical books to digital textbooks. Many institutions have also gone from traditional grading scales to a pass/fail system.

Admissions and financial aid have changed as well. Some schools are no longer requiring SAT or ACT tests for admission since most testing sites are closed. And since so many extracurricular activities necessary to qualify for financial aid haven’t been available, many financial resources have loosened their requirements to allow students to qualify.

With that in mind, you should find out the specifics for your college, or the colleges you are applying to.

  • Ask if some or all classes will be conducted through distance learning. Will you be able to enroll in the courses required to graduate? Will your expected graduation date be delayed or remain unchanged? How will the experience of being on campus change because of the coronavirus pandemic?
  • Ask about housing, health care, and meal plans. Due to social distancing and potential stay-at-home directives, will you have the option to live at home — or will you possibly be asked to learn from home? How will that impact your costs?
  • Think through any added adjustments to your budget: Will you save gas and parking costs with distance learning? Will you spend more on technology and books? If living at home, would you contribute to the household budget?

In addition to contacting your school, get in touch with any current students who can give you a firsthand report on how their college experience has changed during the pandemic.

Put a fresh eye on your finances

Has your income (or that of your family) been impacted by the pandemic? New financial situations might mean less money coming in, which may mean rethinking your college decisions. The only way to be sure is to examine your budget: Evaluate your current inputs (income, scholarships, loans, etc.) against the outputs (college costs and living expenses not covered in those costs) determined after contacting the school.

If your finances are falling short because of COVID-19, there’s still time to explore new funding sources to close the gap. Two options include emergency grants, such as the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund — part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act — and the large number of micro-scholarships that have emerged to help students in need. In both cases, your chosen school’s financial aid office is the best next step. They can help you apply for an emergency grant (applications need to go through your school) and can direct you to micro-scholarships that may apply to your situation.

If you’re still exploring your options, CollegeSTEPS has resources to help with your plan to pay for college, such as emergency help if you’ve been affected by COVID-19. You might also learn about evaluating, and possibly appealing, the financial aid offer from your school. And TFS Scholarships, which provides access to over $41 billion in funding, can help you find and apply for awards wherever your college journey takes you.

Research majors and degree programs with COVID-19 in mind

Fewer undergraduates are going to college for the academic year 2020–2021 in the U.S. But for harder hit colleges, including small private institutions, that could mean a discontinuation of some majors and cancellation or delay of plans to add new degree programs.

Overall enrollment is down by about 2.5% percent across two-year and four-year programs at both public and private institutions. The National Student Clearing House data indicates that college enrollment has decreased even more among certain student groups: 11.2% among international students, 7.7% among Native American students, and 6.3% among Black students. 

High school juniors and seniors applying to colleges now should gather detailed information about what programs, majors, minors, and specializations may be paused or ended at their intended schools. If you have your heart set on a particular program at a particular school, double check that it is still up and running.

You might also want to track how the coronavirus is strengthening or weakening some career paths.

Consider this before you transfer (or take a break)

If the financial gaps are more than you expected, you may want to consider lower-cost or closer-to-home alternatives, such as attending a local college, university, or community college. When weighing your options:

  • Think through your goals in transferring schools. Lower tuition costs? Lower living costs? Better opportunities for part-time work? Being able to help family at home? Then start your research.
  • Find and check each prospective school’s costs on the U.S. Department of Education’s Net Price Calculator, an online tool that helps students and families estimate what a college or university would cost after financial aid is included. A lower tuition on paper doesn’t necessarily mean you end up paying less.
    • Here’s an extra tip: If a school is listed in the Net Price Calculator, it has met the standards to participate in federal financial aid programs. The tool can be a simple way to check if a school specializing in training for massage therapy, cosmetology, HVAC, culinary, dental, medical, or other careers uses the FAFSA to help with tuition and other costs.
  • Talk to prospective schools’ admissions offices about coursework you’ve already completed that would count toward a future degree. Some credits might not transfer, which will mean added cost as you fulfill those requirements at a new school.
    • This is where starting at a community college could be the right choice for you if finances are challenging because of COVID-19. At least 30 states guarantee that students who earn an associate’s degree from a public community college can transfer their credits to a public four-year school and enroll as juniors. Individual colleges may also have their own transfer agreements with neighboring colleges. Given that the average yearly cost of tuition and fees at community college in the U.S. is $3,347, compared to an average cost of $9,139 per year at four-year institutions (according to the American Association of Community Colleges), you could be cutting your costs by $5,792 for one academic year.
  • Talk to the financial aid offices at prospective schools about whether grants, scholarships, and other aid you have been offered or awarded can be used there. Some may transfer to any accredited school, but some may not.

Taking a gap year can impact your financial aid options

If transferring schools isn’t the right choice, you might consider taking a gap semester or year. This time away from the classroom can let you look for an entry-level job or paid internship to gain experience in your chosen field. You may even be able to earn college credit from some internships. Working or freelancing even from home could give you experience in your prospective field and/or help you save money for future college costs. Just keep in mind that an increase to your income could impact your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), affecting how much financial aid you’re offered.

Another option: volunteer work, which can help build your skills for future jobs or internships and give your future financial aid applications a boost. Some programs, such as AmeriCorps, offer volunteer placements of three to 12 months for high school graduates over age 17. These volunteer opportunities may include benefits such as cash stipends or education grants that can be used in the future or applied to federal student loan balances.

If you choose the gap-year path, remember that most schools will let you pause your enrollment or wait to start your freshman year. Talk to the admissions office at your school about these options. Generally, there is a deadline to resume studies to keep any course credits earned or financial aid awarded. In some cases, you may need to make student loan payments while you are not taking any courses or if you are taking less than a full load.

Making your decision

Pandemic or no, the right choice for your college education will vary for each student and family. As you gather research and study your budget and your options, consider what will be best for you in the long run as you pursue your goals.

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