Smart Money Moves if Coronavirus Forces Colleges Online This Fall

Many college students will find themselves learning in an entirely online or hybrid format this

Many college students will find themselves learning in an entirely online or hybrid format this fall as the U.S. outbreak of the novel coronavirus worsens. The pandemic caught colleges and families by surprise in the early months of 2020, but ahead of the fall semester, college students have the opportunity to make a few smart money moves that may pay off in the uncharted months ahead.

With a modified on-campus college experience expected, financial experts say some students may want to consider transferring to a less expensive college to save money this year.

[READ: How to Bridge a Financial Aid Gap This Fall.]

Purdue University–West Lafayette in Indiana, for example, is one of the colleges planning for an in-person semester that will look different. The school will require that everyone, including all students and faculty, wear masks in campus buildings and practice social distancing and robust personal hygiene. Failure to do so “may result in disciplinary action,” the university’s website says.

Other universities will put many students in the position of paying in-person tuition prices for online instruction, a point of criticism as some families question the value of remote learning. This is the case at the University of Chicago, for example, where “many classes will include a combination of in-person and remote instruction and discussion. Others will be conducted fully remotely,” the university’s website reads — and yet students will still be required to pay full tuition, which is $57,642 for the 2020-2021 school year.

Alternative options for students on a budget include enrolling in community college or a less expensive online program, with plans to transfer back to their desired college for a more traditional semester when it becomes possible.

Some experts, however, also warn that transferring can disrupt one’s education and potentially be a choice with its own financial consequences — like needing to take additional semesters to graduate, resulting in more tuition payments and lost wages during that time.

Whatever the format, students enrolled in any college classes this year should plan for unexpected disruptions in instruction, says Daniel Fiorica, a senior member experience manager at Affinity Federal Credit Union in New Jersey.

“Don’t wait if you think you’re going to be in a position where you won’t be able to attend on-campus classes or you’re asked to take classes in a different place. Any of your needs that will emerge, you’re not alone in that,” Fiorica says. “Think about what resources you may need or may not need going forward and act on that sooner rather than later.”

For example, students whose classes are moved online will likely be doing much of their work from their dorm room, apartment or family home and should get supplies like a laptop, monitor and any other work-from-home needs like a desk and chair well in advance. If a college suddenly must move in-person classes online this fall, Fiorica says, there will be an increase in demand for certain items, and families can avoid stress and high prices by preparing for all possibilities now, including creating travel plans for an emergency scenario.

If a student anticipates his or her college work will primarily take place online, there are many items he or she may not need. Experts say it’s important for students and their families to create a new budget for the fall, since expenses may be different when a student is taking online or hybrid classes.

[Read: Coronavirus Emergency Financial Aid: What Students Should Know. ]

“Families need to look at educational costs as having two components: fixed and variable,” Daad Rizk, director of the Sokolov-Miller Family Financial and Life Skills Center at Pennsylvania State University–University Park, wrote in an email.

“For students who are experiencing online learning this fall, remote instruction might offer an opportunity for students to control variable costs, rein in their daily spending such as transportation, eating out, and in many cases, room and board depending on if students are living on campus or staying home with families,” while costs like tuition may remain the same, she says.

Some experts say families should even think about a financial plan in case their college student gets sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Tuition insurance is one option to give peace of mind to those worried about a student having to withdraw from classes suddenly for medical reasons.

Possibly most importantly, experts say, families and students should be in touch with their college financial aid office about their situation. Some may be eligible for additional aid in the form of a financial aid appeal or emergency aid.

[READ: How Financial Aid Appeals Work Due to Coronavirus.]

Of the more than 1,000 undergraduates surveyed by College Ave Student Loans in May, 66% say they worry about covering their college costs. Among students whose college financing plans have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half say they will need to borrow more student loans for the upcoming school year. Especially under these unique circumstances, financial aid experts urge families to do their research and ask for help.

“Colleges know that next year, the year that’s coming up, every student, every family on the globe may have a special circumstance,” says Jodi Okun, founder and president of College Financial Aid Advisors. These changes in financial circumstances resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, like job loss or medical bills, can be grounds to receive more financial aid than initially awarded.

“I encourage every single one of my families to connect with financial aid. Just ask, tell them what’s going on,” she says. “You need to talk to the college to see if they have set aside extra money. If you can prove your family is suffering from COVID, which is considered a natural disaster, you may be eligible for more aid.”

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

Emma Kerr is the paying for college reporter at U.S. News & World Report. Prior to joining U.S. News, she covered education in Maryland for the Frederick News-Post and made stops at the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Daily Beast, among others. She graduated from the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, where she studied English and international studies and began her career as a news reporter at its student newspaper, The Michigan Daily. You can connect with her on Twitter at @EmmaRKerr.

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