How to control college costs in the age of COVID-19

  • By Chris Taylor,
  • Reuters
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Tina Smets had long thought about getting a college degree, but that seemed impossible.

As a mom of three kids, waitressing nights at a local restaurant in Kearney, Nebraska, the 31-year-old did not want to saddle her young family with tons of student debt.

But then she heard about “Nebraska Promise,” a new University of Nebraska program that covers tuition for families below a certain income level.

“I don’t think I would have considered it otherwise,” Smets said of her planned business administration degree. “I actually didn’t believe it at first.”

Stories like Tina Smets are becoming more common in this strange coronavirus era. Facing the prospect of declining enrollment, many colleges are becoming more creative in order to attract and keep potential students.

“Every senior leadership team is on their whiteboard right now, thinking about eight or nine or 10 different options to help more students be able to enroll,” said Jim Hundrieser, vice president for consulting services at the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

The University of Nebraska program covers tuition for families earning less than $60,000 a year. The University of Maine is offering in-state pricing for out-of-state students whose colleges have had to shut down.

Some schools have frozen their tuition rates, including the University of Minnesota, Colorado State and the University of Colorado. Some colleges offer discounts for students hurt by the economic crisis, such as the 30% tuition discount offered by Georgia’s Thomas University for online undergraduate programs.

The measures are aimed at stemming a fall enrollment decline of up to 20%, according to a survey by consulting firm Simpson Scarborough. More students are considering a gap year, and the number of international students could drop through the floor.

“Families don’t want to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year just to have their kids stay home all day,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research for Savingforcollege.com.

As a result, many colleges are proving more flexible on admissions and pricing, welcome news for incoming students. Tuition and fees have rocketed more than 25% in the last decade, according to The College Board, leading to a whopping $1.6 trillion in student debt.

“Colleges need students”

There are other potential silver linings. For those whose dream college might be just a bit beyond reach, this could be their lucky year. “This is going to be the best year to be admitted off the waiting list,” Kantrowitz said. “Colleges need students, and it will be easier to get in.”

Currently, 776 colleges report having space available for the upcoming academic year, according to the College Openings Update from the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Last year? Only 422, said Kantrowitz.

Financial aid will also be affected by the crisis. Original offers for the upcoming academic year as calculated using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)are based on financial data from 2018.

So if your family’s financial circumstances have changed, you can appeal the award in a bid to secure more aid.

With some colleges behind the eight-ball because of squeezed budgets, most students can take their time in order to make the right call financially.

“Out of 4,000 institutions across the country, maybe 400 or 500 require that you make your decision by a certain date,” Hundrieser said. “But the other 3,500 are very understanding with what families are facing and want to help as you consider all your choices.”

Hundrieser suggests that with many families wary about residential options because of the coronavirus, this might be the perfect year to opt for a low-cost community college close to home. Students could potentially transfer to their dream college later on – having racked up credits in the meantime.

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For more news you can use to help guide your financial life, visit our Insights page.


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