How to Make Sense of College Changes This Semester

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Cases of COVID-19 are spiking at colleges across the country, as students head back to campus.

Some universities are even changing course, going online for the rest of the semester or longer to help curb the spread.

Campuses in North Texas are also continuing to monitor the virus as some report a growing number of cases.

That's why parents and students are left with a lot of questions on how to plan out the rest of their college experience and make the most of this uncertain time.

Bobbi Rebell is a certified financial planner, journalist and finance expert for consumer tech company, Tally. She's also a mom to a college junior.

“Students have every right to be upset because they are not getting the same experience. It’s a very frustrating situation,” she said.

She answered a number of concerns students are grappling with as the pandemic throws a wrench in this semester.

Should I take a gap year?

One of the big decisions parents and students are grappling with is whether or not a gap year or a community college alternative is in the cards.

“It’s important to think about what are you doing with that gap year that’s going to further your education and move your career along, to make up for the fact that you will be graduating a year later,” Rebell said. “Don’t expect tuition to go down at all. Many colleges are on regular schedules in raising tuition every year. So if you go for your first year -- a year from now -- those four years could be that much more expensive as well.”

Colleges and universities have a regular schedule of pre-planned tuition increases that are already on the books. If you wait, you will be paying a bit more in the long run for tuition.

Either way, what you do with that gap year or time away from your intended university is important.

“What is the long-term plan? What will they do with that gap year? What will they be learning? Will they be able to get a job? The job market is pretty tough right now to get a job,” Rebell said. “So if your choices are great, pick the best choice and it’s OK if that best choice is staying at home or learning remotely.”

Can I get a refund?

Since students won’t have the full campus experience they expected, can they get a discount or refund on tuition?

Rebell said that might be tough since costs are fixed.

“The frustration here comes with the fact that many colleges not only won’t give a discount but really can’t afford to give a discount because their cost hasn't gone down in many cases," she explained. “They’ve had to ramp up this whole new segment of learning for themselves. They have had to invest in technology, they’ve invested in software platforms. They’ve had to invest in training their faculty. So they’ve had additional costs.”

Plus, universities are already losing a lot of money to the pandemic.

“For example, if you move out of the dorm, they are not collecting rent from anybody else so that’s lost revenue for colleges – making their financial burden even tougher,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot that the universities can do. They are still paying professors, they have higher costs with technology, training, new software platforms and additional things that they have to consider including new protocols to comply with federal guidelines for coronavirus. It’s a really complicated situation right now there’s still sorting itself out.”

Still, it’s worth asking your school to see what your options are.

“Every college is going to have their own policy with respect to tuition refunds. So if you’ve already showed up on campus and started the semester, it’s going to be really hard to get that tuition refund. Some people might have insurance, but that often only applies to only medical situations – not necessarily to a change in how the college is presenting classes so that can be very tricky,” Rebell explained. “But it’s always good to ask because you never know. Colleges do understand that students are in very difficult positions.”

Where should I live now?

Some students are also worrying about the financial cost of just having moved into a dorm, only to find out classes are switching to remote learning only.

“Very often it doesn’t make sense to go live on campus if you’re going to be taking classes online and it’s going to be a huge financial burden for your family,” she said. "That said, if your family already has some money budgeted, there is value in having those relationships and bonds that you form with your classmates if you are living with them safely.”

Rebell said if you want to make the switch to moving to an apartment with roommates or living at home to save money, it’s still possible. You are more likely to get a refund on a dorm and in the long run, you’re better off saving money.

“For example, in the spring, we did get [my son] prorated for the months that he did not live in a dorm. His school did give us a refund for that time,” she said.

Her son ended up moving into an apartment with his friends to continue his classes online this semester, even though a gap year was another option originally in the cards.

"It’s OK to change your mind. Circumstances are constantly changing and you have to look at right what’s right for your family in this moment. And be prepared to switch gears,” she said.

Re-do math on financial aid

Better than asking for a discount, you just might need to redo the math on your financial aid.

If you make an appeal to the school, your family might qualify for more grants or loans if your financial situation has changed due to COVID-19.

“You want to make the case that your ability to pay has changed. Many colleges give financial aid not necessarily based on what the tuition is but what you can pay,” Rebell said.

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