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Pandemic complicates college decisions

Tribune Content Agency logo Tribune Content Agency 5/7/2020 By Terry Savage, Tribune Content Agency
a large clock tower in the middle of a field: Due to concerns about the coronavirus lockdown, many elite colleges have admitted more applicants on their waitlists. © Dreamstime.com/TNS Due to concerns about the coronavirus lockdown, many elite colleges have admitted more applicants on their waitlists.

For the first time in memory, students have the upper hand in college admissions — but only if they have enough money to play that hand.

It’s no secret that colleges have extended the traditional May 1 deadline for accepted students to confirm attendance and post deposits. Colleges have grown more concerned about two key problems: how and where they will provide an education, and whether they will have students willing to pay for it.

They know that some incoming freshmen will base their decisions on whether the campus will be open for the fall semester or whether classes will take place online. Even brand-name schools are feeling the pinch. Parents are wondering whether it is worthwhile to pay for a prestige university if their daughter is sitting at a computer in her bedroom?

As a result, many colleges, worried about filling their classes, are already accepting students off their waitlists, said Casey Near, executive director of counseling at Collegewise.com. It will be difficult for some families to make a commitment, not knowing how long income might be impacted by the economic slowdown.

The anxiety in making plans is a real issue, according to Rick Castellano of Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest private student loan provider. A recent poll shows that more than half of college students contacted had a parent or guardian who had lost a job. And one in six who had already made a deposit reported they had changed their plans and decided not to enroll full-time at a four-year college in the fall.

But if you are considering a “gap year,” think twice, said Nears. “Consider the alternatives and think about what you would do that would be more interesting than taking courses online at your top choice school,” she said. “Travel is likely out. And getting a part time job — if you can find one — just puts you a year behind your contemporaries.”

Even worse, not all schools will be willing to accept all students who want to take a deferral or a gap year. Also, any classes you take at a local community college online may not be transferrable credits, Nears said. So be very careful about making this decision out of emotion.

So what should prospective students be doing now to make that important decision? Here’s some advice:

—Already accepted but need more financial aid now? Contact the college admissions office immediately and explain how loss of family income jeopardizes your plans to attend college. Don’t be afraid to ask for additional grants or work/study programs.

—Accepted but didn’t file for financial aid? You have until June 30 to file FAFSA for this fall. You may not have thought your family would be eligible for federal student loans, but changing circumstances could now qualify you. It’s worth filling out the application at FAFSA.ed.gov.

—Accepted but not sure you can attend, even with more aid? Contact the school admissions office immediately and ask for an extension of time to file your acceptance and deposit. Also ask if you will be required to pay room and board during any period of online learning. And it’s not unheard of to ask for and get a discount on tuition!

—Already posted a deposit, then accepted off waitlist at a school you prefer? You can’t have two deposits and commitments at the same time. And the wait-listed school might demand a decision within 24 to 48 hours after it accepts you and offers an aid package. Be ready to consider both deals, comparing all costs after aid, including travel — as well as whether the program will be online or on campus.

Yes, these are uncertain times. The high school class of 2020 missed its graduation ceremonies and proms and final sporting events. So, it’s easy to fall into despair about college. But just like all financial crises, this era will soon be part of history. Your education, on the other hand, will always be part of your future. That’s why it’s so important to make calm and sensible decisions about the value (and cost) of your college education now. And that’s The Savage Truth.

(Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser and the author of four best-selling books, including “The Savage Truth on Money.” Terry responds to questions on her blog at TerrySavage.com.)

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