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Families and students preparing for the upcoming academic year beginning this fall have much more to contend with than usual because of the coronavirus pandemic. Schools will not be returning to pre-pandemic ways, even those schools that welcome students back to campus and include at least some in-person classes.

Many will continue distance online learning only that was instituted for spring 2020 classes. Others will use a hybrid system combining both online and in-person classes for most students, eliminate the usual fall breaks and then send students home at Thanksgiving until at least after Christmas or longer depending on the health situation on campus. Still others like Harvard plan to have only certain undergraduate classes on campus — in Harvard’s case, just freshmen —  with the rest learning online. 

Some schools haven’t finalized their plans yet or could potentially change the ones they’ve already made, depending on the trajectory of the coronavirus where they’re located. 

“It’s all over the board,” says Ross Riskin, director of CFP and ChFC education programs at The American College of Financial Services, about plans by colleges and universities for the upcoming year. 

In general “most tuition-dependent colleges will reopen,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at savingforcollege.com. “They can’t handle the loss of enrollment.” 

But are families comfortable with the arrangements that schools have made for the fall 2020 semester for health reasons and with the costs they will be paying, whether for on-campus or online learning? Or should their students consider alternatives for the fall semester and possibly beyond, depending on the trajectory of the pandemic? ThinkAdvisor spoke with Kantrowitz and Riskin about what families should do now. Here are some highlights.

1. Appeal the financial aid award.

Financial aid at colleges and universities is largely based on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which most families have already filed, based on their 2018 tax return. But the financial circumstances of many families may have changed since then because of the virus-fueled recession we’re experiencing. “The number one reason for appeals is job loss or other income reduction,” says Kantrowitz.

Colleges and universities may also be under financial pressure because of lower enrollments and because the White House has issued a directive barring visas for international students, who tend to pay full fare, if all their classes are online this fall. (MIT and Harvard are suing the Trump administration, opposing the directive.)

“I expect a ton of financial aid appeals but schools that didn’t meet enrollment goals and depend on others on endowments may not give as much,” Riskin says.

The lack of funds could also affect merit aid. “If there’s more demand for financial aid, schools  won’t have as much money for merit aid, where the financial aid growth has been,” says Kantrowitz.

2. Look for discounts.

Although colleges and universities in general will be under pressure to provide financial aid, with the exception of those with very large endowments, some schools are discounting tuition costs. 

Princeton announced a 10% cut in tuition costs for the full year because students will only be allowed on campus for one semester or less. (First-year students in the class of 2024 and rising juniors will be on campus for the fall semester and sophomores and seniors in the spring.) The University of Southern New Hampshire, which has traditionally offered online and on-campus courses, is offering a one-time Innovation Scholarship to all incoming campus freshmen this fall. The scholarship will cover 100% of first-year tuition, and tuition will be cut 61% to $10,000 per year starting in 2021.

3. Expect less work-study funds.

The CARES Act allowed colleges to convert federal work study to grants for students, but it waived the requirement that colleges provide 25 cents for every 75 cents provided by the federal government for work-study programs, explains Kantrowitz. That means less money available for federal work study.

4. Know the risks of taking a gap year or leave of absence.

Students and their families may consider taking a gap year or leave of absence (if they’re already enrolled) instead of attending college this fall because of health concerns and finances. Why pay for a less than complete college experience this fall when they can defer enrollment for a semester or a year? Both alternatives, however, come with risks, according to Kantrowitz.

Ten percent of students who take a gap year, which is usually taken before they start college, do not end up enrolling in college and graduating within six years, Kantrowitz said.

Federal student loan borrowers who are already enrolled in college and take a leave of absence may have to start repaying their loans sooner they expect. They’ll get a six-month grace period for federal loans, but if a student is not enrolled at least half-time after that, payments on the loans will come due, according to Kantrowitz. Students who re-enroll can qualify for deferment, but in the meantime they may have to start repaying their loan.

5. Community college attendance during a gap year can also create risks.

Students who take classes at community college during a gap year, deferring enrollment in a four-year college, risk losing several thousand dollars in grants if the four-year college treats them as a transfer student when they re-enroll. The decrease in institutional grants is much greater at private nonprofit colleges than public colleges, according to Kantrowitz.

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