By Anna Helhoski, NerdWallet | June 10, 2020 at 11:33 AM EDT – Updated June 10 at 3:40 PM
(NerdWallet/Gray News) – If you’re waiting until the last minute to make a decision about college, you’re in good company — colleges are scrambling, too.
Here’s a sample of what some schools are considering:
- Boston University plans in-person instruction.
- The California State University system will go remote.
- Columbia University will offer three semesters to “de-densify” its campus.
- Kent State University is developing “multiple scenarios” including face-to-face, remote learning or a hybrid model.
- University of Notre Dame will begin its fall semester in early August, forgo fall break and end before Thanksgiving.
- University of Florida says it won’t announce plans until mid-July.
There are dozens of examples that all point to one conclusion: No one is sure what the college experience this fall will look like. But experts say it’s still the way to go in most cases.
“The question is: If not college, what is your alternative?” says Robert Kelchen, associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. “For many people, with the economy the way it is, the alternatives will be bad. Even though college may not be college the way you want it, it still beats the alternative of sitting around home doing nothing.”
Pay attention to your prospective school’s deadline for making a decision and adhere to it. Currently enrolled students have a longer window to send in a deposit — usually up to the first week of classes. If you change your mind, you will likely forfeit any deposit you make now.
This is a financial decision, too
A 2020 high school graduate at a traditional four-year school who depends on student loans for college could expect to borrow $37,200 in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree, according to a NerdWallet analysis.
Commitments that big should never be taken lightly, especially now.
Experts say you should not expect your school to lower tuition for any online courses you take since you’ll still earn the same degree credits. But there are opportunities to cut costs in the fall — and lower the amount of debt you take on overall.
The real variables are the school you choose, the amount of financial aid available and your living expenses.
As you make a decision, think about how well your courses might translate to online learning and if you’re someone who learns well that way. Would a cheaper school, or one closer to home, make sense? Does your financial aid picture change if you attend remotely? Do you have a way to pay for food and shelter if you’re not on campus? Would taking a break harm your chances of finishing school?
Here are possible choices for fall 2020:
1. Attend college remotely
Your college may choose online-only instruction, or you might decide to attend classes remotely even if the campus opens.
Remote learning could be a good opportunity to continue your coursework at a fraction of the cost since you won’t pay for room and board. But an online-only model may not work for you if your degree requires in-person interaction, like lab or fieldwork.
Here’s what to consider if you switch to distance learning:
- What resources or technology you’ll need to transition to successful online learning — and if you’ll need help paying for them.
- What degree coursework you can more easily complete remotely, such as core classes.
- If your financial aid award included work-study, which could limit your remote options.
- Your confidence in the quality of online coursework at your school.
Schools may reopen, but with modifications, you’re not used to or new requirements, like COVID-19 testing, distancing in classrooms and reduced occupancy in dorms, experts say.
Even if your college says it’s opening for in-person instruction, that can shift in a heartbeat.
“Be prepared that there could be a disruption — or there might not be. We just don’t know,” says Betsy Mayotte, president and founder of The Institute of Student Loan Advisors. “I think it’s important to mentally prepare yourself for that.”
Students may wait to put down a deposit until there’s more clarity, says Kristen Capezza, vice president of enrollment management and university communications at Adelphi University.
“I don’t think it’s for a lack of wanting [to attend], it’s a hesitancy because they want to know what it will look like, what they will be faced with and what they will be asked to comply with,” says Capezza. Adelphi has told students it’s planning to reopen with new distancing and safety precautions in place.
Here’s what to consider if you head back to campus:
- Potential challenges of social distancing in a crowded campus environment.
- Whether you’re prepared for a switch to remote or hybrid learning if there’s a shutdown in your area.
- Whether your school will supply a prorated refund on room and board if it closes early.
Taking a gap year essentially means putting off enrollment. Often, many colleges will offer official deferment to incoming and current students to postpone attendance for a year without losing their spot.
But students who choose to do it usually take a gap year to travel, intern or volunteer. Many of those options won’t be available this time around.
“I think a gap year this year means a very basic ‘I’m not going to enroll for a year.’ I don’t think it means there’s anything extraordinary happening for that student,” says MorraLee Keller, director of technical assistance for the National College Attainment Network.
Here’s what to consider if you decide to take a semester or year off:
- Your school’s deferred-enrollment policy and deadlines.
- How you’ll spend the year if you don’t take classes.
- Whether you already have student loans. If so, repayment will begin six months after leaving school. Contact your lender or servicer to find out your options to defer or lower payments.
4. Attend a community college, then transfer
An inexpensive option would be to attend a community college that’s functioning online or in person. This is a good option if you’re uncertain about your school opening its doors in the fall and you’re in your first two years of school.
You can usually knock out a few requisite courses for less money, then transfer in the spring or fall 2021 semesters.
Here’s what to consider if you attend a community college:
- If credits will transfer to the school you plan to attend or if the credits you already earned are accepted by the community college.
- Your enrollment status. If you’re not attending college at least half-time, it may be difficult to get a loan, since federal loans and most private lenders require at least half-time attendance. If you are not enrolled at least half-time and already have student loans, expect repayment to begin.
What you can be doing now
Make a decision as soon as you can. Keep a close eye on communications from your school.
“I know sometimes things happen that make it not possible to go, and I think schools understand that, but I think we’re all living in this world where we aren’t certain what the fall is going to look like,” says Stacey Kostell, chief executive officer of the Coalition for College, a group of member colleges aiming to make higher education affordable for historically underrepresented students. “You’re going to have to take a risk on that decision and hope for the best.”
Schools have some leeway. If enrollment is low at your school, you might receive more financial aid, says Kelchen.
For example, enrollment is slightly lower than expected for the fall at Middle Tennessee State University, but incoming freshmen will find expanded scholarship offerings, according to Tyler Henson, director of the MT One Stop, the enrollment and services department at the university.
If what’s holding you back from making a decision is the financial strain, especially if your family’s income has changed, there are options available to get more financial aid.
Contact your college aid office about how to file an appeal, suggests Kostell. You should also update the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to reflect your family’s current finances. And ask if any deferred payment options are available. For example, at Davidson College, students can now defer payments until August 2021.
While you’re in school, emergency aid help may be available to help you meet financial challenges. Ask what options exist at your school.
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