Study: 8 in 10 Say College Plans Have Been Significantly Altered

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With the coronavirus pandemic upending higher education, many are reconsidering what a college education looks like for them — and how much it’s worth.

According to Student Loan Hero’s analysis of the mid-to-late September Household Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, 81.7% of households with at least one college student in it have either canceled plans to take courses this fall or have significantly altered them.

To get a better understanding, Student Loan Hero took a deeper look at the data to find out why plans changed — and where students were being most impacted.

Key findings

  • 89.1% of Oregon respondents — the highest rate — report significant alterations to college plans. Delaware was second at 87.3%, while Kentucky was third at 86.9%.
  • The three states at the bottom all had less than 70% of households with at least one student reporting significant changes to college plans: South Dakota at 62.6%, North Dakota at 64.3% and North Carolina at 67.4%.
  • The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating some already troubling U.S. inequality trends. According to the Census Bureau survey data, those with a household income of less than $25,000 are 15.4% more likely to report college plans changes than those in households with incomes of $200,000 or greater.
  • Respondents who said their health status was poor are more likely to report someone in the household putting college plans on hold than those who said their health was excellent. In fact, nearly 83.6% of respondents who cited poor health noted someone in the household had altered plans for college significantly, versus just 66% of respondents who cited excellent health.
  • Nearly 50% cited different formats or content of classes as the reason why a student in their household changed or canceled college plans. Health risks from COVID-19 were the second-most common reason cited.

How household incomes impact college plans amid pandemic

When it comes to pandemic-era college plans, money has a lot of sway in how students will be able to handle things. And, unfortunately, that means lower-income households are generally more likely to experience a change in their higher education plans:

Changed plans by household income
Annual incomePercent whose plans changed
Less than $25,00077.3%
$25,000-$34,99980.5%
$35,000-$49,99973.8%
$50,000-$74,99973.1%
$75,000-$99,99972.9%
$100,000-$149,99968.8%
$150,000-$199,99970.2%
$200,000 and above67.0%
Source: Student Loan Hero analysis of Census Bureau data

“Lower-income households have a harder time building a cushion to guard against a loss of income,” said Andrew Pentis, Student Loan Hero’s senior writer for student loans. “Even consumers who have taken the responsible step of building an emergency fund might not have enough savings to overcome a decrease in earnings that spans the length of a pandemic. They might also have a harder time going out and finding replacement income, particularly if they work in a service-oriented industry affected by the economic shutdown.”

Talking to the financial aid office is a vital first step for those who are worried about financing their college education during these times. It can feel discouraging, as many schools have seen an onslaught of financial aid review requests. (In fact, according to data from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, 59% of survey respondents from more than 200 college and university financial aid offices saw a noticeable increase in requests for professional judgement between March and late September.) But it’s still an important step.

“Whether or not your school is able to increase the value of its original financial aid package, families should also seek out financial aid from their state governments, via grants, as well as private organizations that are still offering scholarships,” Pentis said. “When that’s not enough, students from lower-income families should consider a cheaper school — the community college route can be especially cost-effective — or even taking a gap year.”

How health statuses impact college plans amid pandemic

Households where respondents were in poorer health are more likely to see that translate to changes in college plans as the pandemic continues:

Part of this trend may be from preexisting conditions that necessitate stricter adherence to social-distancing guidelines, so going back to campus may not be an option. There may also be compounding factors, like finances, that make remote learning undesirable, too.

Pentis recommended the “little-known, oft-forgotten Vocational Rehabilitation program.”

“You can receive money for college,” Pentis said, “but also special accommodations should your health issue make learning on or off campus more difficult.”

Reasons why college plans are changing

Students cited many reasons why college plans might change during the coronavirus pandemic. But, notably, the primary issue wasn’t concerns about finances or even about contracting COVID-19 (a warranted fear, as schools can be hotbeds for the virus).

A combined 72.9% — respondents could select all that applied — cited changes to the content or format of classes, or uncertainty around those changes, as their primary reason for altering their college plans.

Changes to income and financial aid were a combined 38.8% of responses.

“The pandemic has roiled the economy, causing families to see drops in income and upticks in expenses,” Pentis said. “It reasons that families with a shattered budget would not be able to afford college and, in some cases, no longer attend.”

However, changes in the learning environment are often paired with a slow response to discounted tuition. That can mean paying a significant amount for a potentially less effective or desirable education and having less time to do things like supporting family during this difficult time.

4 things to remember when college plans have been altered

Before changing college plans, there are a few things you should do if yours may need revision.

Talk to your financial aid office

Taking a year or semester off can have major, and unexpected, consequences. Talking to the experts will help illuminate those consequences.

According to Pentis, financial aid offices can give you a better sense of whether leaving school would cause you to lose scholarships or state grants that require you to make satisfactory academic progress. Otherwise, you could have to repay gift aid, he said.

Consider alternatives

Taking time off may not be the only, or best, option. And even though an online education isn’t right for everyone, it’s still important to consider thoroughly. You may still have access to things like office hours in a virtual setting, which can help bridge the gap.

Get the timing right

If school has already begun, for example, it may be too late to return loans without penalty. So it’s vital to know the cutoff date — and the penalty if you miss it. In general, you could have 120 days after disbursement to return federal student loans without penalty.

Think about your financial priorities

Taking time off can enable you to save for upcoming semesters and lessen your student loan debt after graduation. But again, doing so may also result in the loss of some financial aid, so it’s vital to weigh those costs and opportunities to decide which options suit your needs best. Considering the average starting income in your field and whether you’d eventually be eligible for student loan forgiveness can help clarify things.

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