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4 smart moves to make now to help you pay college tuition in the fall

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The Covid-19 pandemic has been a setback to many prospective students and their families: Some 69% of parents and 55% of students say the pandemic has affected their ability to pay for college, according to a survey of 6,500 college-bound high school seniors and their parents from NitroCollege.com, a site that helps people navigate college admissions and financial aid.

"Families have also experienced stock market losses in their college savings plans," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at SavingForCollege.com.

If you or your child is college bound in the near future, these four moves can help you afford tuition this fall.

Take your time making a decision

National College Decision Day, the deadline for high school seniors to confirm their college of choice and put down an enrollment deposit, is usually May 1. But the coronavirus pandemic has led some colleges to push decision day back to June 1 or even later.

You can check out a running list of colleges that have extended their deposit deadlines, or reach out to your prospective school directly.  Colorado State University, for example, is extending their deadline for enrollment deposits until August 21 for first-year students and allowing refunds on deposits until this time.

If your financial situation is in flux, take advantage of extended deadlines by using the extra time to weigh your options and mull over financial considerations for each school. If your financial situation has changed and you're planning to appeal your financial aid award, for example, you might need the time to see which schools can give you a more attractive offer.

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Consider enrolling closer to home 

Even before the pandemic, the cost of college and the burden of student loan debt was a major concern for students and families. Now, even more prospective students and their families may be looking to save on tuition. If that's the case, a school closer to home might be your best best.

"With the [Covid-19] virus in circulation, students are even more likely to stay home," Robert Franek, editor-in-chief of The Princeton Review and author of "The Best 385 Colleges," told CNBC.

Depending on your location, the savings from staying local can be significant. Tuition and fees for a four-year private college averaged $36,880 a year in 2019-20, while at four-year in-state public colleges, it was $10,440, according to the College Board.

"An in-state public college gives you just as good a college education but at a quarter to a third the cost of a private college," says Kantrowitz. 

Appeal your financial aid award

You may be able to get additional aid if your financial situation has changed. Even though most colleges and universities have already sent out award letters outlining financial aid packages for accepted students for the fall 2020 semester, schools may make adjustments to financial aid awards

"If the family's income has changed because of job loss or a salary reduction, the college might make an adjustment to the student's financial aid package," says Kantrowitz. 

Families have also experienced stock market losses in their college savings plans.
Mark Kantrowitz
publisher and vice president of research at SavingForCollege.com

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is based on income from the prior-prior year, meaning 2018 for the 2020-2021 school year. That means it may not reflect your current economic standing if someone in your household has recently lost a job or been furloughed due to the coronavirus. 

To file an appeal, contact your school's financial aid office to explain your change in circumstance. You may be able to increase in your aid package by writing a personal letter and including documentation that illustrates your financial need.

SwiftStudent, an online tool designed to help students navigate requesting aid adjustments, provides templates and explains the documents needed for an appeal.

Special circumstances that may qualify you for additional aid include: 

  • Student or parent's employer closes, laying off or furloughing staff
  • Death of a parent or other wage earner
  • Lost wages due to illness, a quarantine period, or shelter-in-place order
  • Inability to work because of illness

Explore scholarships, coronavirus funds, and gap years

If you've been directly affected by Covid-19, you may be eligible for additional relief. 

As a first step, do your research and check to see if the school you hope to attend has a fund for students who need financial help due to the coronavirus crisis. For example, the City University of New York has launched an emergency relief fund to provide $500 grants for students in need due to the crisis. Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts, started their COVID-19 Student Assistance Fund to help students overcome financial obstacles.

No one knows for sure what the fall will bring, and there's no guarantee students will be able to attend classes in person in 2020. As a preventative measure, some colleges may continue offering remote courses for another semester. Over half, 58%, of institutions are considering whether to remain fully online for the fall 2020 semester or have already decided that's what they'll do.

Meanwhile, 73% of college and universities are considering increasing, or have increased, the number of online and/or remote courses, according to a survey of 262 institutions (91% of them U.S. institutions), from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

While it may be months before colleges and universities can confirm what will happen in September, it makes sense to plan ahead and sort out how you can pay the cost of tuition in advance.

If you decide it makes more sense to take a gap year and save money for tuition, recognize how the pandemic has also affected admissions for enrollment in 2021, too. Cancellations, postponements, and plans to introduce at-home testing for the AP program and SAT and ACT exams have left current high school juniors in a state of uncertainty. So it may be a good idea to start thinking about financial aid options now.

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