The Fall Semester Is Weeks Away: Here's What College Students and Families Should Consider Before Heading Back to School

Colleges across the country are doing remote learning or enacting new social distancing rules. Here’s what to think about before making a final decision for the coming academic year.

Colleges and coronavirus for the fall semester: school desks
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Coronavirus and efforts to stop the spread of the disease have changed the way we work, travel, shop, spend our leisure time, and more—it’s effectively shifted every aspect of our lives, hopefully for the short-term. With all the areas coronavirus and COVID-19 have touched, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that education has been drastically affected, too, including secondary education.

While parents of younger kids figure out childcare and activities for their school-age children, college students and their families are facing an uncertain fall semester, after a heavily disrupted spring semester. Some colleges have announced all virtual classes and will not open campuses to students; others are attempting a complete return to campus for all students, while more are working toward a hybrid of remote and in-person learning.

Paying for college isn’t easy, and unfortunately, many institutions aren’t making it more affordable right now: At some schools, tuition remains the same even if only remote learning is offered or only a select number of students will be allowed back on campus each semester. Some are freezing tuition and forgoing planned tuition increases, but only at select institutions is tuition actually becoming less expensive: Princeton University announced a 10 percent tuition discount to all undergraduate students for the 2020-2021 academic year, for example.

Without the full college experience of on-campus activities, socializing, in-person classes, and more, it’s only fair that some students (and the families helping them pay for college) question whether another semester or year of remote learning is worth the expense. Students attending schools that plan to resume in-person learning may be wary of the health risks, or may not want to go far from home and family during this crisis.

In short, there’s a lot to consider, and conditions keep changing: Some colleges and universities, including Dickinson College in Pa., announced in-person classes in June or July but are already reversing their plans and preparing students and faculty for remote learning. According to The College Crisis Initiative, an effort from North Carolina’s Davidson College that tracks the reopening plans of almost 3,000 U.S. colleges, community colleges, and universities, only 327 institutions have committed to a fully in-person fall semester, and 118 plan to be fully online; 759 have yet to announce their plans. (Almost half plan to have some mix of online and in-person learning, either primarily online, primarily in-person, or some in-between arrangement.)

With so little concrete information—and fall semester start dates getting closer every day, while COVID-19 case numbers rise across the country—college students and families need to be prepared.

“There’s definitely a lot of uncertainty,” says Christine Roberts, the head of student lending at Citizens Bank. “The one thing that is a constant is that schools will be asking for flexibility.”

Whatever your plans for the fall semester, be prepared for them to change—but that shouldn’t keep you from doing everything you can to prepare now, even if it’s still unclear what your or your student’s institution will do this fall. Here’s what you and your family need to consider before you make a final decision for the coming college academic year.

01 of 07

Can you make the most of the situation?

The last few months haven’t been ideal for anyone. Learning remotely for another semester or year or returning to campus with restrictions (and without many of the more fun features of college) may not be what many students dreaming of the freedom of college signed on for, but it almost certainly isn’t for forever.

The coming academic year may be uncomfortable, but if students adjusted to remote learning well enough, are willing to abide by campus social distancing restrictions, and aren’t overly worried about the tuition expense—either because of a well-stocked 529 plan, scholarship money, a good student loan situation, or family wealth—it may be something they can sit and wait out. For students who had planned to live on campus but are now unable to, room and board fees (and some campus fees, depending on the institution) may be refunded; students living off-campus will still be able to live in their apartments or houses, or may be able to break leases.

Still, the largest expense of attending college is tuition, and that’s not going to change drastically. What’s important to remember is that the value of your degree hasn’t changed, even if the process of getting it has shifted for the time being. If you’re very concerned about the value of the education, Roberts suggests calling the school and talking through your concerns.

Ask about taking fewer classes at a reduced rate—while still remaining a part- or full-time student, per the conditions outlined in any student loans, grants, or scholarships—or see if there’s any space to negotiate tuition. Remember that schools are eager to keep students enrolled, so you have some leverage.

“There’s ways to talk to your school about what your options are within school,” Roberts says.

RELATED: How to Budget

02 of 07

Is transferring a good idea?

For those eager to resume in-person classes—even with the risks involved—or unwilling to pay the same amount of tuition for online learning that may not offer the same perks as in-person learning (collaborative, interactive classes, personalized attention from professors, etc.), transferring schools is an option.

Transferring to a different school could allow students to attend in-person classes and access campus amenities if their initial school chooses to go remote only; it could allow students to stay closer to family and home during this crisis; and it could help students and families save money on educational costs if the student transfers to a school with lower tuition.

Some institutions are even capitalizing on the fact that many students are dissatisfied with their current institution’s approach to education in the time of coronavirus. According to Inside Higher Ed, some colleges and universities are launching programs for transfer or new students that offer lower tuition costs or increased scholarships to make the education more affordable.

Before you or your student decide to transfer, though, weigh the risks, Roberts says. Local colleges or community colleges may have lower tuition than the private school with its magazine-worthy campus, but transferring isn’t always a smooth process.

“Make sure you understand the rules of transfer so you’re not just wasting energy and dollars,” Roberts says. Credits don’t always transfer, she says, so if your student is in year two, three, or four of college, there’s a chance they’d have to retake classes. If students wanted to transfer somewhere closer to home or more affordable for the year and then return to their original campus once this crisis is over (or defer enrollment and attend community college for the year), their initial institution may not accept the transfer credits from the other school, so the whole year would amount to no progress toward their degree. (Some institutions may even tighten their rules surrounding transfer credits to discourage students from transferring out and then back or deferring to take classes somewhere else.)

If transferring still sounds like the best option, call the new school and talk through its transfer credit policy. Make sure you understand what will transfer, what won’t, and what classes you or your student will be required to take in order to graduate on time.

03 of 07

Should you take a gap year?

In normal times, a gap year offers fresh high school graduates time to work, explore, learn, and reset before college; older students may take a gap year to address mental health, health, or family concerns. Now, a gap year offers space for students of any age to ride out this crisis with family and without the stress (and the cost) of school weighing them down.

Unfortunately, taking a gap year isn’t as simple as calling your school and telling them you want a year off.

“Some schools are changing their parameters around gap years,” Roberts says. Some institutions may not approve all deferral requests for incoming freshmen. In those cases, “if you decide on a gap year, you need to reapply,” Roberts says.

For students already enrolled, a gap year may have negative consequences for their student loan repayment schedule. Most loans offer a six-month grace period after a student leaves school, typically the six months after graduation, before they must begin to be paid off. If a student took a gap year between sophomore and junior year, say, their student loans may go into repayment. (Going back to school would put the loans back into deference.) You can ask for an extended grace period for private loans, Roberts says, but it’s important to understand what will happen to your loans (federal and private) before you decide to take a year off.

Also, it’s important to consider what you’d do with a gap year, Roberts says. Most students use gap years to travel, volunteer, or work (and most gap years are approved with those activities in mind): All three options are difficult right now. Plus, for those who struggle in school, taking a year off may make it more difficult to return to academics and eventually graduate. People who feel that it’s unlikely they would return to school may not want to risk a gap year.

“If you take a gap year from your education, are you going to struggle to return?” Robert says.

Before you make plans for your gap year, talk to your school and your loan provider to make sure you understand all the potential implications.

04 of 07

Have you lost income?

With unemployment high across the country, it’s likely that more than a few families of college students have lost income—potentially the income that made paying for college possible. If that’s the case and tuition seems unaffordable, Roberts says families should call the school’s financial aid office. Many offer a change-of-circumstance form that can help families qualify for more federal aid, grants, or scholarships if they’ve lost income.

You can also apply for aid: Claire Grant, financial writer at investment and savings app Stash, recommends submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). If you’ve submitted your FAFSA already, Roberts says you can resubmit with your new circumstances, but school financial aid officers will offer the quickest support.

RELATED: How to Save Money

05 of 07

Are you immunocompromised or worried about your health?

For students with preexisting health conditions, the option to return to campus—even if the school allows it—isn’t much of an option at all. The simplest solution is to contact the school and discuss your concerns; it’s likely they will offer online options to students who, for whatever reason, cannot return to campus should it reopen.

“I know that all schools are truly trying to work with every situation and every student,” Roberts says.

06 of 07

Can you continue your on-campus job?

If work-study is an important component of your ability to afford college, check if your job will still be available, even remotely, Grant suggests. Contact your manager or the financial aid office to see what your options are. Some work-study positions may be doable remotely; if yours isn’t, you may be able to find a new one that is.

07 of 07

What’s best for your family?

This may be the most important consideration.

“I think there’s no rules right now,” Roberts says. “Some schools have said they’re starting earlier and having less breaks—there’s no one size fits all answers for any school, anywhere. Every school is trying to do what they think is right.”

Look at your school’s plan of action—and be prepared for it to change, even after you’ve made your plans—and discuss your options with your family. Your family’s financial situation, location, health, and comfort with a student returning to a college campus are all worth considering. If you go to campus, will you be able to return home to see family at the holidays, or will you have to quarantine or stay at school? Is tuition manageable? Do you have the space and technology for an at-home study environment?

Whatever the concerns, bring them up with your school. “Schools are trying, they are truly, truly trying, to do what’s best for their students and their schools,” Roberts says. Take them up on their offers for support and answers and ask every question you can think of before you make your decision. There might be a compromise that makes everyone happy.

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