How Taking College Classes Remotely Amid Coronavirus Can Cost You

College students who choose to take classes virtually instead of on campus — where they risk contracting and spreading COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — may face an unpleasant reality: a significant reduction in their financial aid eligibility.

When a college offers the option to either learn from home or return to campus and a student chooses the former, the financial aid office typically recalculates his or her cost of attendance. The cost of attendance is the total cost for the school year and includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and other expenses. This cost, along with a student’s financial information provided on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is used to calculate how much financial aid a student can receive.

[Read: How to Get FAFSA Completion Help During Coronavirus.]

Similar to the calculations made for commuter students, a college may reduce estimated living and meal expenses for a student who learns remotely from the family home during the coronavirus pandemic. This translates to the possible elimination of institutional grants and other financial aid opportunities, and may be a rude awakening for students this spring and beyond when they realize the financial impact of choosing to study at home.

For this reason, experts urge students to ask their financial aid office about the college’s policy around cost of attendance recalculations during the pandemic before making the decision to study virtually or on campus.

“From our point of view, if you are living at home — unless you are independent or have a living situation where you can’t go home or you have a lease you can’t get out of, something like that — for the most part if you’re going back home you’re not paying rent anywhere, so you’ll need less money from financial aid,” explains KC Woods, associate director of financial aid and scholarship programs at Syracuse University in New York.

“Not enough students are asking that question. They just go remote and assume their financial aid will stay the same. Then when they do, the aid is adjusted and it’s not what they expected or budgeted for,” Woods says.

[Read: What Biden’s Presidency Could Mean for College Affordability.]

Students must weigh the health risks and costs of returning to campus against the possibility of losing some financial aid for the semester and missing out on elements of a typical college experience if they live at home. Wes Waggoner, associate vice president for enrollment management at Southern Methodist University in Texas, says the decision to learn remotely should be made with all of the facts in mind.

“If you’re living at home with your parents, your housing and dining costs go down significantly, so your cost of attendance goes down, and that could affect your financial aid,” Waggoner says. “But it may still be to the benefit of the student to do that, and it may be to the benefit of the student’s wellness to do that.”

Each college may approach this issue differently. Some, like Emory University in Georgia, have opted to not adjust a student’s financial aid if he or she chooses to take classes from home as a way of offering extra support and understanding for students and families struggling with the economic impacts of COVID-19.

[Read: Coronavirus Emergency Financial Aid: What Students Should Know. ]

“Fundamentally, students still have to eat, still have to have a roof over their head,” says John Leach, associate vice provost for financial aid at Emory. “We were probably, for our undergraduate population, about 70% remote. For the students who receive financial aid, Emory kept our cost of attendance stable for those students even if they were living at home, and we are one of maybe one or two institutions in the nation who did this.”

Just as each college’s policy may vary, each student’s health and home circumstances may factor into the decision to learn remotely or on campus. Additionally, experts say students must create a budget and consider the different costs associated with these learning options.

“Moving home doesn’t necessarily mean their costs are going to go down,” says Cathy Mueller, executive director of Mapping Your Future, a nonprofit organization that provides financial aid counseling and resources.

“For some students, it might mean increased costs such as if they don’t have high-speed internet at home. Students should see what’s allowable under that school’s cost of attendance (calculation) and your program’s cost of attendance,” Mueller advises.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.

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