COVID-19 has created a lot of uncertainty around the college experience, and one area of particular concern has been how to cover college costs. One poll found that two-thirds of parents were worried about paying for their children’s tuition amid the pandemic.
Whether your family’s income was impacted by the coronavirus or you think it could be, here are some options to help you pay for college during COVID-19.
FILL OUT THE FAFSA, NO MATTER YOUR FINANCIAL SITUATION
FAFSA season has started for the 2021 to 2022 school year. Whether you have a high school senior or current college student, it’s important to fill one out — even if you don’t believe you qualify for financial aid or you haven’t filled one out in the past. Filing the FAFSA is the only way a college even knows you’re looking for financial help, and financial aid offices use this information to see if you qualify for grants, scholarships and loans.
Also, you must fill out the FAFSA in order to apply for any subsidized or unsubsidized federal student loans. Students that demonstrate need can apply for subsidized federal student loans, but even students that don’t demonstrate need can apply for unsubsidized loans. (You can find the borrowing limits for each type of loan here.) If you’re a parent thinking of borrowing through the Parents PLUS loan program to help cover your child’s tuition, your family must also still fill out the FAFSA.
NEGOTIATE FOR MORE FINANCIAL AID
Many people believe that the amount they receive in financial aid cannot be negotiated. However, this year especially, many families are grappling with the fact that the FAFSA information that determined their eligibility for aid is no longer relevant because their income and assets may have changed substantially.
Even if you’ve already received a financial aid package, “you can appeal for either more or modified need-based financial aid packages and scholarships, and merit-based financial aid,” says Ian Mendelson, CEO of BYE Student Loan Debt. “When I was going to college, I used this process and received an extra $5,000 in scholarship money.”
In fact, most colleges now have a formalized appeal process. So look up the one specific to your school, says Fred Amrein, founder of PayForED. Typically, “the appeal letter needs to be short with detailed numbers, if possible,” he adds. If your family has recently experienced a job loss or reduced income because of COVID-19, make sure that is explained in your appeal.
Also keep in mind that, under the CARES Act, many colleges received special federal relief funds to help students cover expenses caused by the disruption of campus operations related to COVID-19 (such as unexpected food or housing costs). Current college students can apply for this funding through their school.
APPLY FOR AS MANY SCHOLARSHIPS AS POSSIBLE
Applying for college scholarships can be time consuming, but it has the potential to pay off. Some scholarships may even be awarded mid-year, so it never hurts to look even after the school year has started.
In addition to applying for scholarships offered by colleges and universities, look into employer-based scholarships, government scholarships and private scholarships. “Many corporations have scholarships or tuition reimbursement opportunities,” Mendelson says. “Parent employees could apply to these for their children.”
And don’t just go for the big-name scholarships. You may discover that there are ones offered by heritage groups, trade organizations and local community groups. “There are hundreds of private institutions, corporations, and charities that provide educational assistance for both need and merit,” Mendelson says. He recommends Fastweb to help with that research.
CONSIDER PRIVATE LOANS
Federal loans offer more flexibility than private loans when it comes to payment plans and deferment or forbearance options. But private loans can be an option if you’re not eligible to apply for federal loans, or you’ve already maxed out how much you can borrow from the government.
Your child can apply for private student loans by filling out applications directly with private lenders, although it’s likely parents would have to co-sign. Co-signing a loan for your child makes you liable for any amount that your child can’t repay, so just be sure you understand the risks to your own credit before you agree to do so.
You may also be looking for other ways to access cash to help cover educational costs for your child, such as taking out a home equity loan or a personal loan. If you have permanent life insurance, you could access your cash value to help cover college tuition.
What’s right for your family will depend on your financial situation, A financial advisor can help you think through the pros and cons of each option before you decide what to do.
CONSIDER CHEAPER EDUCATIONAL ALTERNATIVES
If your college student isn’t going to be on campus for the foreseeable future, it may make sense for him or her to earn some credits at a cheaper community college or in-state school for the time being.
“This is an especially good option for students who are unsure of their major concentration, as they can use more cost-effective schooling to define their interest before pursuing a full four-year degree,” Mendelson says. “Many states, like my home state of Tennessee, have free community school options.”
Before you decide on this strategy, make sure you can transfer the credits you earn. “Many students who transfer will lose college credits for a variety of reasons,” Amrein says, “so students considering transferring need to do their homework before making that decision.”