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.

So much has happened in the last few months for college students — your head might be spinning. You’re facing a ton of emotions and possibly new financial challenges, and you’re trying to figure out how to sort through it all.

It’d be great if there were a one-size-fits-all solution as you look ahead to determine your next steps. Of course, there isn’t. But what we can offer is a process you can use to evaluate your options, including their financial impacts, so that you can make the best decision for you.

First, contact your school

Admissions and financial aid professionals want you to become one of their school’s future graduates. For that to happen, though, you must understand how the school is adjusting its practices in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

And the majority do anticipate changes: In March 2020, the Association of American Colleges and Universities surveyed nearly 300 institution presidents and asked what changes they expect to make for the 2020 – 2021 school year. All of them said they expect to make changes, with most (64%) predicting at least moderate changes to how they teach students and how their administrative staff works.

With that in mind, you should find out the specifics for your school.

  • Ask if some or all of fall 2020 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 other words, you need as much information as possible about how your college costs and your college experience might change due to the coronavirus pandemic. With that information in hand, you can then review your own finances.

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 you’re concerned you’ll fall short, 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, College STEPS has resources to help with your plan to pay for college, such as Wells Fargo’s 5-Step Guide to Paying for College. You might also learn about evaluating, and possibly appealing, the financial aid offer from your school. And TFS Scholarships can help you find and apply for awards wherever your college journey takes you.

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 for the fall, 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.
  • 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.
  • Talk to the financial aid offices at prospective schools about which 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.

Of course, you could also take a gap semester or year, which would give you the opportunity to 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.

Another option: volunteer work, which can help build your skills for future jobs or internships. 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 allow you to 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 by which you need to resume studies in order 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

You’ve gathered the research, studied your budget and your options, and you’re ready to decide. The right answer will vary for each student and family, but the information you’ve gathered here will help you make the right choice.

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