Paying for college in a pandemic? Take these action steps

Millions of college students are in a holding pattern for on-campus study this fall. One issue they can control, however, is paying for college during the coronavirus.

The coronavirus has reconfigured many U.S. institutions, including health care, government policy, and, most notably to college students and their families, the higher education system.

In fact, changes stemming from the pandemic have college administrators worried. According to a survey of 193 college presidents by the American Council on Education, 86 percent said they were worried about this fall’s enrollment numbers due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Additionally, college administrators are highly concerned about these coronavirus-related issues, as well, the ACE survey reported:

  • 64 percent are concerned about “long-term financial viability.”
  • 45 percent are worried about “sustaining an online learning environment.”
  • 44 percent say they’re vexed about “laying off faculty and staff.”
  • 41 percent are worried about the “mental health of students.”

Is college worth it this fall semester?

With schools in flux, college students and their families have some big decisions to make this summer, especially on whether students should attend college at all and, if so, how best to protect themselves financially and educationally.

“Many U.S. colleges and universities are planning to reopen this fall, but they’re prepping for sweeping changes that directly affect campus life,” said Melissa Brock, founder of College Money Tips, a personal finance website. “This could mean masks, social distancing, cleared large lecture halls and lower-capacity residence halls, a halt to extracurricular activities and even online classes.”

“Smaller schools may even go as far as to not let their students leave campus,” Brock said. “No matter what, campus life will change — and for some, it will change drastically.”

What steps should college students and their parents and guardians take to protect their college investment efforts? Try these action tips, money experts say:

Take out a student loan

While taking out student loans should be deprioritized in favor of scholarships and grants, this “would be the year” to borrow with the Federal Direct Loan Program, Graham said.

“The interest rates are the lowest they have been, and federal loans come with many protections and payment plan,” she said. “The latest interest rates for Federal Direct Stafford Loans for undergraduate students will be 2.75 percent in 2020-21, down from 4.529 percent in 2019-20.”

Student loan marketplace Credible has made the evaluation process a little easier by giving a more detailed look at private lenders, each one's student loan rate and other offerings.


Go shopping for low-interest rates

When pursuing private student loans, use online interest rate comparison tools to get the best deals. Private student loans can be especially helpful when a student has already maxed out on federal student loans.

Credible has a robust loan comparison tool – you can get prequalified for student loans from eight lenders in two minutes with no impact on credit scores.

When looking for any college loans, make sure to use an online student loan calculator to estimate monthly loan repayments. That should help make more realistic decisions when taking out student loans.

Credible has a free and easy-to-use student loan repayment calculator for college students.

Leverage more financial aid

“It’s a good idea for families to talk to their student’s financial aid office, particularly if they’ve experienced financial hardship during COVID-19,” Brock advised. “Ask if there are any scholarships available, or any additional college funding options that have arisen due to the coronavirus.”

Colleges want students on campus, especially for financial considerations, and students should take advantage of that mindset.

“Colleges need the revenue generated from tuition and room and board,” said Catherine Graham, founder of the Financial Aid Shop, in Redondo Beach, Calif, and a former college financial aid administrator. “Consequently, the first thing every student should be doing this year is appealing for additional financial aid.”


Most colleges have an appeal or special circumstance process outlined on their website, Graham said. “When schools consider an appeal, they will first explore federal and state options before considering awarding additional grants and scholarships from their own funds.”

One special tip: Families can project any changes to their FAFSA eligibility via the U.S. Dept. of Education's College Scorecard. “This is a great tool for families planning for college at any stage,” Graham noted. 

Pay as you go

Many colleges offer payment plans and are allowing for deferred commitment deposits this year.


“Review all of the payment options listed on their schools website,” Graham said. “If they don’t find a payment solution, call the student financial aid office and request a payment option that meets the family’s financial needs.”