Can’t Afford College Right Now? Here Are 3 Options to Consider

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You’ve been dreaming about packing up and heading off to college for so long.

But you were also planning to pay for college with income that’s suddenly gone.

That was Mackenna Kerrigan’s plan. She was accepted at the University of North Florida and had lined up a summer job at a local restaurant to help her pay for a computer and campus life. 

“I was hoping to work at least 40 hours a week, and if I’d get $10 an hour, that would’ve been perfect for me — just put it towards college,” she said, noting that she had already been awarded some financial aid to cover tuition.

Here’s all of our coverage of the coronavirus outbreak, which we will be updating every day.

But with her job eliminated by the shutdown, Kerrigan said she now needs to ask the university for additional assistance. 

The scramble to hold onto a student is in a college’s best interest, especially as learning institutions across the country prepare for an estimated 15% drop in enrollment, according to the American Council on Education.

If your college plans have taken a financial hit, what are your options? Consider this your freshman re-orientation.

What to Do Now if You Can’t Afford College

A young woman who will attend college as a freshman stands outside her home.
Mackenna Kerrigan’s summer job at a local restaurant was eliminated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so she reached out to the University of North Florida for additional financial assistance. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

If you’re not sure what to do about college and feel like you’re waiting for answers, you’re not alone. 

Many of the colleges that Certified Educational Planner Jamie Dickenson said she’s worked with over the years are now struggling to determine how to handle the upcoming school year.

“In the college admissions and financial aid world, this is the new abnormal,” she said. “All the previous rules for admissions and financial aid have gone out the dormitory window.”

And although the college may have its own issues to figure out, your priority needs to be making the best financial choices for you. Here’s how you can get help paying for college now.

1. Negotiate for Additional Financial Aid

Things change. (There’s an understatement.)

If your financial aid package was based on your FAFSA submission, your college was using financial information from your 2018 tax return. If that information has changed recently, you can appeal your financial aid offer.

“You would be very wise to go back and negotiate your aid package, especially if you can document this [pandemic] has had a devastating effect on you,” Dickenson said. “I’ve had two or three families this year who have negotiated their financial aid and ended up with more money.”

Pro Tip

Loan doesn’t have to be a four-letter word if you’re struggling because of a temporary financial hardship but expect to fully recover as the shutdown ends — but seek out the lowest interest rate.

Be prepared to present documentation to back up your request — unemployment filings or medical records, for instance.

If you’re rejected for additional tuition assistance, don’t be afraid to go back to the financial aid office and ask for at least some kind of break — like a fee waiver or free parking pass — to help cut costs. 

And remember: Because we’re all in unchartered waters, the “no” you get today could turn into a “yes” in a few weeks as processes and protocols evolve.

“Don’t settle for whatever first response you might get from someone, whether it’s in regards to student loans or paying for college,” said Ian Aguilar, a Certified Financial Planner and managing partner at Mellen Money Management. “Everyone’s figuring it out right now — there is no standard playbook.” 

2. Consider Schools Closer to Home

Even if your university offers additional help, it may not be enough. Or you might be concerned about spending your hard-earned money to move to a campus that ends up closing.

If you were planning to head out of state, switching to an in-state alternative could offer you another option.

“One of my girls has been admitted to the University of Colorado at Boulder — and we’re in West Virginia,” Dickenson said. “Her mom called and said… ‘If she can’t come to school in the fall, I’m not going to have her sit in my kitchen to do online courses and pay out-of-state tuition.’”

Dickenson advised reaching out to your admissions counselor for its policy about tuition if you’re an out-of-state student and can’t be on campus. But, she warns, they may not have an answer for you yet.

And if you haven’t already applied to an in-state school, the deadline may have passed — although you probably have a better chance of arguing your case for a late application this year.

Pro Tip

Although it may be tempting, don’t double deposit — placing deposits to accept admittance at two schools. It’s considered unethical, and if either school finds out, they could rescind your offer.

You have another option if you’re worried about moving away from home right now — even if the school is within your own state: Start this year at your community college.

Not only do community colleges offer a less expensive alternative for entry-level college classes, they typically offer open enrollment, so you won’t have to worry about application deadlines. 

Because you’re close to home, you can also save on housing expenses (if your parents are OK with you sticking around a little longer).

And transferring from a community college to your chosen school could end up saving you a substantial amount of money — but it does mean forgoing that first year away from home.

“I have some friends who said, ‘What’s the point of going away if we’re going to be online the entire first year?’” Kerrigan said. “That’s like a waste of money when we could go to [the community college] for a cheaper price.” 

But Kerrigan said that having relatives who live near her university helped alleviate some fears, and the college had sent assurances that refunds will be offered for meal plans if the campus has to remain closed.

“I was excited to leave home and start something new — even if classes are online,” she said.

If you do choose to attend another school at this point, be aware that there’s a good chance you’ll lose any financial aid awards you received from your first-choice school.

“They would probably sacrifice any scholarship money they had,” Dickenson said. “And there’s not nearly as much scholarship money going in as a sophomore as you get going in as a freshmen.” 

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3. Take a Gap Year

If you’ve been dreaming about campus life, this is probably the answer you least want to hear: Wait a year.

But…

“If it would be that devastating, there’s nothing wrong with going to work and putting it off a year,” Dickenson said. 

Even before the current crisis, colleges have given permission for a year off — or gap year — to let an admitted student work, volunteer or engage in other educational pursuits. 

In addition to making extra money, you could use this year to explore career options if you have any uncertainty about your major. That could save you from wasting time — and money — on unnecessary classes when you return to school.

It never hurts to know what’s out there. Work-from-home job opportunities abound. Find yours in our portal, updated every weekday.

But again, taking a year off could potentially affect your financial aid package, so it’s important to reach out to your school to discuss your options — so don’t just skip classes and consider it a gap year. 

In the end, everyone — students, parents, colleges — is navigating this new landscape. So don’t be afraid to raise your hand and ask questions. Your financial future could depend on it.

Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer/editor at The Penny Hoarder. Read her bio and other work here, then catch her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln.