College During COVID
Kiplinger's Personal Finance|September 2020
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College During COVID
Students and their families must be ready to adapt to the changes in the way they attend— and possibly pay for—college.
STACY RAPACON

AT KIPLINGER, THE NAME OF THE GAME is value. For more than 20 years, our annual college rankings have been no exception. Over the years, we analyzed data on hundreds of public and private colleges and universities across the nation seeking institutions that deliver a high-quality education at an affordable price.

But this year, as the coronavirus forced schools to shutter in mid-March and transformed the higher-education system practically overnight, we put our rankings on pause. Instead, we decided to focus on strategies for getting the most value out of a reeling higher education system, including transfers, gap years and increased financial aid.

For Mika Garcia, a 21-year-old rising senior at the University of West Florida (UWF), the pandemic shutdown meant a softball season cut short. “It was extremely heartbreaking,” she says. “Everything was shut down— no weights, no practice, no games, no visiting one another. It was a weird and confusing and sad time, for sure.”

Samuel Merritt, 20, who was attending the American University of Paris, had to quickly find a flight home. Although he says doing so was “pretty easy,” his father, Dan, recounts the situation differently, noting inflated prices for last-minute tickets to airports near their home in West Caldwell, N.J., and a layover in Düsseldorf, Germany: “I was completely freaked out about his getting home from Paris,” he says. “My biggest concern was that he’d get to Düsseldorf and get stuck there, where he has no place to stay and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get to him.”

Merritt’s return was safe and smooth, but he’s decided not to return to Paris. “Given the pandemic, I really just want to be closer to everyone.”

This fall, Merritt is set to transfer to Emerson College, in Boston—a move he and his family see as a silver lining to this gray cloud of a year. “I am quite honestly very happy that he’s going to be on soil where I can drive to him,” says his father.

Happily, Garcia’s softball scholarship remains intact—part of the agreement when she signed on with UWF was that her scholarship would carry over all four years of her college career. And certain sports scholarships may remain safe in general.

“For many schools, the athletic program is an important part of their community, enrollment strategy and outreach to their alumni base,” says Kevin Walker, publisher of College Finance.com.

Garcia is looking forward to getting back to school and on the softball field for her senior year, even if classes are conducted online (before the pandemic, she tended to go with online course options to accommodate her rigorous sports schedule) and new restrictions are in place. “As long as we are all staying safe and our health is being taken into account, that’s all that matters,” she says.

BACK TO SCHOOL

More than one-third (37%) of high school students report altering their path for higher education, according to a June survey by the College Savings Foundation. Among those who are setting a new course, 40% plan to attend community college to save on costs (see the box on page 46), and 25% are taking a gap year.

The vast majority (84%) of colleges are planning to reopen for the new academic year with at least some form of in-person classes, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. But pandemic plans vary greatly, depending in part on each school’s geographic location and campus layout.

The California State University System, the nation’s largest four-year public university system, announced in May that the fall semester would focus on virtual learning, with minimal in-person activity. At the other end of the spectrum, Emerson is planning for a mainly in-person return. The University of West Florida is taking a hybrid approach, allowing students to choose among classes in four categories: full distance learning, primarily distance learning, hybrid (with 50% to 79% of the course delivered remotely) and primarily classroom. Both Emerson and UWF plan to close campus for Thanksgiving and finish the remainder of the term virtually.

With so much variety and uncertainty, the college decision is understandably harder these days. “There has been a lot more hand-wringing and consideration around whether to go to college this fall,” Walker says. “But it might still be the best alternative, even if the mode that college of choice is using is not the optimal one.”

MORE AID, PLEASE

Most schools were quick to issue prorated refunds for room and board, which became unavailable once schools closed in March. But many students and their families think they deserve more. They argue that losing access to in-person classes and on-campus amenities lowers the value of their education—and that change should be reflected in the price. Some families have even filed lawsuits against several schools, including Arizona, Cornell, George Washington, Michigan State and Rutgers universities. Such appeals have so far been unsuccessful, so if schools are forced to close campuses again and shift classes to Zoom, don’t count on reimbursements.

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September 2020