When Colleges Say Stay Home: Options for Undergrad, Grad, Veteran and International Students

Now that big-name colleges are announcing plans to go remote in the fall due to the coronavirus pandemic, others are expected to follow. How does that change the financial math?

The answer can differ from school to school and depending on whether you are an undergrad, grad, veteran or international student.

Here’s how a switch to remote learning could affect your costs and financial aid.

Don’t expect a break on tuition

Colleges that aren’t fully opening campuses for fall 2020 or are planning a hybrid model (a split between in-person and remote learning) are generally not cutting tuition.

Keep in mind, you'll be earning the same credits for the courses you complete, even if you’re not getting the same college experience.

But tuition is just one of many expenses you encounter on campus. Your school calculates those expenses — tuition and fees; books and supplies; room and board; transportation and personal expenses — in a single number known as total cost of attendance.

While tuition may not fall, your other expenses might

You may not be paying for meals and a dorm room on campus, but you’ll still eat and sleep.

And your school still needs an official total cost of attendance: It’s used to calculate financial aid, your family’s financial contribution and even how much you can borrow.

Colleges that go remote this fall are factoring at-home living expenses into the cost of attendance. Including these expenses as part of the cost of attendance means you can get financial aid and loans to help cover the amount. At-home costs are typically calculated as less money than room and board.

For example, Harvard University is charging tuition and fees for students studying from home, and it factors personal expenses into the overall cost of attendance.

At UCLA, part of the University of California system that announced it would be majority remote learning for the fall, the cost of attendance includes a higher amount for room and meals if you’re living in an off-campus apartment versus living at home with family.

You may not be able to borrow as much

If you need to borrow to pay for college, there are annual and overall limits for federal loans for undergraduates. Parent or graduate PLUS loans and private loans limit borrowing to the total cost of attendance minus other financial aid.

You can use student loans to help pay for tuition and fees, as well as living expenses, which are factored into the official cost of attendance. Your school determines the cost of attendance, and it is confirmed by your lender. Call to double-check what the new total cost of attendance is if your college goes remote since its website might not have the most up-to-date information.

Be ready to adapt to changing circumstances

If you need more money for college due to a change in your family’s financial situation, you can appeal your financial aid award with your school’s financial aid office. You should also update the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, you submitted to apply for aid.

If you have short-term financial needs during the semester, your college may have emergency aid available in the form of loans and small cash grants, scholarships to complete a semester, dining hall vouchers and food pantries.

Alternative options for undergraduates

To lower your costs altogether, you could defer enrollment at your preferred four-year school and spare yourself some debt by knocking out prerequisite courses at a community college — in person or online. But you’ll have to make sure credits will transfer to your school of choice.

You can also defer enrollment and take a gap semester or year. If you’re a current student with loans, taking a gap year could trigger repayment to begin. And a gap year mired in travel restrictions, high unemployment and health risks might not be the best option.

You may feel strongly that remote learning is not for you, so you could opt to transfer to a school that’s opening in-person. But consider this: If COVID-19 cases are high enough in your area, schools may shift to remote learning anyway, as they did this past spring.

Alternative options for graduate students

If you’re getting a graduate degree, it’s best to stay the course due to the time, effort and money you’ve already put toward your education.

Being on campus may be necessary — especially if your program requires hands-on research or you rely on student housing. Some schools are prioritizing graduate students when reopening. For example, Yale University has said all grad students can return to campus, while only some undergraduates will be allowed.

Even if your program has shifted to remote learning, you may still be eligible for housing and able to work as a teaching assistant. For example, MIT did not require graduate students to leave its campus and has said that students will receive their stipends, no matter where they work.

If you don’t feel comfortable on campus, your school may let you study remotely or take a leave of absence. Incoming students may also be able to defer admission for a term or year, depending on their graduate degree program and its policies.

If you take time off, any existing student loans you have will likely enter repayment before you reenroll. You can defer federal loans once you’re back in school, but not every private lender offers this option.

Veteran and service member students

GI Bill recipients: A new law allows the Department of Veterans Affairs to continue GI Bill payments for programs that have converted from in-person to online. Normally, online programs need to be approved before the VA will pay benefits, but the new law, S.3503, provides an exception through Dec. 21, 2020, and applies to new and current GI Bill recipients.

Under the new guidelines, if your in-person or hybrid program switches to complete remote learning, you'll receive the same housing allowance. And the rules haven’t changed for those in online-only programs: You need to enroll in at least one class that normally has a face-to-face requirement to get a housing allowance.

If you are considering changing your education plans and reducing your course load, remember that you need to take a full-time schedule to maximize your GI Bill benefits — you’ll lose out on housing benefits if you’re enrolled half-time or less.

Tuition assistance recipients: If you’re currently serving, consider using your tuition assistance benefits instead of your GI Bill. Tuition assistance typically covers up to $250 per semester hour with a maximum of $4,500 per year and doesn’t have a course-load requirement.

You can use tuition assistance for lower-cost online courses at approved colleges now and save your GI Bill for later to get the most out of your benefits.

International students

Considerations: On July 14, 2020, the federal government rescinded its guidance that would have barred international students through the Student and Exchange Visitor Program from entering with an F or M student visa or remaining in the U.S. if their full course load is online. The announcement came following multiple lawsuits by universities and states against the policy. International students with visas can take all classes online or through a hybrid model and still remain legally in the U.S.

Taking loans: Multiple U.S.-based private lenders offer international student loans to borrowers who have a cosigner who is a U.S. citizen and can qualify. Otherwise, there are two niche lenders that offer loans to international students studying in the U.S.: MPOWER and Prodigy Finance. Contact those lenders to find out what might happen to your loan if your studies are interrupted due to the coronavirus.

Getting more financial aid: International students have few resources when it comes to financial aid since federal aid isn’t an option. But there may be scholarships available for international students from your school or a private organization.

Alternative options: You could consider deferring enrollment with a U.S. university or opt to attend a college in your home country or another one instead.

If you plan to study abroad or in your home country, look for a school that has an existing relationship with a U.S. institution since it can be difficult to transfer credits.

The two niche lenders for international students in the U.S. also finance loans abroad: MPOWER finances loans for international students studying in Canada, while Prodigy Finance lends to students studying in several other countries, including Canada, China, Denmark, France, India, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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