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June 9, 2020, 3:19 p.m. EDT

Should you attend college next fall? Before deciding, here are all the questions you should NOT be afraid to ask

Questions families to consider amid the coronavirus pandemic cover students’ financial, physical and mental health

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By Jillian Berman


Getty Images
Students participate in an activity near Royce Hall (background) on the campus of University of California at Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California on March 11.

Whether you’re a freshman coming to college or a returning student, there isn’t much certainty about the fall semester.

Individual colleges are periodically announcing plans — often subject to change — for courses that are fully online, largely in-person or some kind of hybrid. In addition, it’s hard to envision what the experience of attending college in the midst of a global pandemic and accompanying economic recession will look like — and whether it’s worth the hefty investment.

But students and families can control how they react. The unknowns have some students considering taking a gap year, transferring to a different institution for a period or even changing their college choice overall. By gathering the right data, they can make an informed decision about their plans for the fall.

Here are questions to consider and pose to universities as families think through their options:

Are you living on campus with certain restrictions?

Students and families need to determine what factors matter to them the most in making their decision, said Jayne Fonash, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Are students worried about how being on campus might affect their health? Are they comfortable living on campus with certain restrictions? How have the family’s finances changed? These are some of the questions students and families can put to themselves that can help them define their priorities before asking for information from their colleges.

In addition, students should think about what kind of resources — including, technology, food assistance and academic help — that they might need to be successful in school, said Teresa Steinkamp, the advising director at the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis. Students should also be thinking about how the fall semester may fit into their broader plans and goals.

“We have an obligation to the students who are considering enrolling or who are continuing their education this fall to really think about the cost-benefit analysis and understand that pausing right now is not necessarily indicative of a failure or a personal flaw on their end,” she said.

What happens if you get sick on campus?

Jean Chin, an associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of Georgia, who is also chairing the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force, said there are a whole slew of pandemic-specific questions, including: How are you going to support my physical and mental health? What will happen if the student gets sick in the residence halls? Does the school have its own health service? If not, where will they send students who need their health care needs met?”

Parents and students should also try to get an understanding of how a college will handle a situation where one student is infringing on another’s health, Chin said. “What’s going to happen if a student doesn’t want to wear a mask or doesn’t respect my six-foot physical space?” In addition, if a student is medically high-risk, ask whether the college has a plan for keeping them safe, she said.

Do you have a full understanding of the health-safety measures offered at schools with in-person courses?

Chin also suggests families look at individual colleges’ websites to see what plans the schools have already communicated and whether they sound reasonable to the family. Her committee has released a set of guidelines for colleges looking to bring students back on campus. Access to widespread testing for students, faculty and staff with symptoms as well as the ability to contact-trace and quarantine infected individuals are key to minimizing the spread of the virus on a campus, according to the document.

“Anybody who posts a well-documented plan to me seems like they’ve got their ducks in a row,” Chin said. “They may not have thought of everything — it tells you that their process of thinking is really sound.”

Students and families may also want to get a granular understanding of the safety measures schools with in-person courses are taking to protect students, Fonash said. Will masks be required in certain settings and, if so, will they be provided? How big will classes be? And what will a room in residence look like?

Families may also want peace of mind about the social aspects of the college experience. “I don’t know that a campus can monitor 24/7 every party, every gathering, every individual decision, but certainly knowing what the policy is going to be on the campus, is a legitimate question,” she said.

How does the pandemic impact your expenses?

College costs and financial aid always play an important role in students and families’ decisions of where to attend school, but economic considerations are particularly crucial during a period when so many are out of work and the product colleges are delivering is noticeably different than what students expect.

“It’s important for a student to understand completely the cost of their education, the aid that they’ve been offered and what, if any, unmet need remains,” Steinkamp said. “That’s really important this year because students are being asked to commit to institutions where there’s still a lot of uncertainty.”

Are financial-aid offers final or are they an estimate? Steinkamp says students should be sure the offer is final before committing to a school. In addition, students and families should reflect internally about what it means to attend an institution during this period that requires parents or students to take on a sizable loan, she said.

What if you can’t do your work-study position? Do you have all the resources necessary to cover your expenses?

Her organization is advising students to make parallel plans, laying the groundwork to attend a community college if — for health and finance reasons — it makes sense to go to a less-expensive school close to home, while also keeping track of deposit deadlines — and crucially when those deposits can be refunded — at other colleges they’re considering.

How will financial aid be impacted by the current environment? The CARES Act, one of the stimulus bills passed by Congress earlier this year, temporarily suspended the requirement that colleges match the money provided by the government for work-study programs.

“Either the average work-study job is going to be less money or they’re going to have fewer of them,” said Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of savingforcollege.com. In addition, if certain campus facilities are closed, students may not be able to get hired for a typical work-study gig, like staffing the library desk or swiping students into the cafeteria.

What does that look like in the fall if you can’t do your work-study position? Do you have all the resources necessary to cover your expenses? If not, how does that affect your ability to continue at that institution?

If students are considering taking a gap year or signing up for courses at a local community colleges, how might that affect your eligibility for financial aid when you return? Need-based financial aid will always be based on a college’s assessment of a student’s free application for federal student aid or FAFSA, Fonash said. Will merit-based scholarship or grants be the same if you return to their school six months or a year from now?

Will you have to reapply for financial aid if you take a gap year or enroll elsewhere for a period?

Will you have to reapply for financial aid if you take a gap year or enroll elsewhere for a period? It’s also often the case that colleges make less financial aid available to transfer students, Kantrowitz said. What is the average award for transfer students versus a first-year student?

Given the economic uncertainty surrounding so many families, students and parents should also find out from colleges how they’ll help them afford the cost of school if their financial situation changes. That may already be the case for some students since need-based financial aid is based on income information provided by families from the 2018 tax year.

Students always have the option to ask colleges to reassess their financial-aid packages, Kantrowitz said. How can you appeal for more financial aid? Typically, schools will issue a form or they’ll tell students to write a letter about their change in circumstances, he said. In addition, the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, a nonprofit focused on higher education and immigration issues, launched SwiftStudent last month, a free tool students can use to streamline the process of writing to their schools for more financial aid.

How is the school handling increased demand for financial aid? In addition, get a sense of whether the amount students will be asked to pay will change if the campus experience does, Kantrowitz said. Will housing deposits, room/board and tuition will be refunded if classes start or move online? When campuses were forced online in the spring, many schools offered at least pro-rated refunds on room and board, but very few provided tuition rebates.

If a college promises some kind of refund, will it be a cash refund or a credit? Cash won’t affect students’ eligibility for financial aid the following year, but a rebate will, he said.

Understanding changes to the academic experience

Regardless of whether courses are delivered mostly online or largely in-person this fall, a student’s academic experience will be different from previous years. The way colleges approach this new learning environment could impact students’ decision to attend.

For many students and colleges, the rush to convert courses from in-person to remote was disappointing. How will virtual courses in the fall look different than those in the spring?

Steinkamp also suggests students reflect on how the online learning experience went for them in the spring and factor that into their decision-making in the fall. Will they change their course load or pick different classes? Were they able to access tutoring and the other academic resources that they might need to succeed online?

Depending on the answers, it may make sense for some students to take a semester off if the experience is fully online, Steinkamp said, particularly if they’re borrowing for those courses. Ultimately, never agree to attend a college without these two questions answered: What do you need to be successful as a student? And what are you hoping to get out of your education?

Jillian Berman covers student debt and millennial finance. You can follow her on Twitter @JillianBerman.

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