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During COVID, is it worth paying full college tuition?

The pandemic has already taken a toll on family finances and must face the reality of deciding if it’s worth paying tuition. Families may need to reassess their overall financial goals and consider making adjustments to understand tax implications or reevaluate their estate planning process to determine if paying tuition for online learning is worth the cost.

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing our world, and there’s no answer for when we’ll be able to resume life as we knew it before. One major change in question is the future of universities and how students, especially incoming freshmen, can expect to receive higher education. This year, colleges across America transitioned to remote learning in early March, meaning many left campuses for Spring Break and never returned. Since then, college students around the world have not stepped foot on campus, and there’s much uncertainty regarding how this coming fall semester will look as well.

I only need to look across the living room to understand first hand how the changing educational environment is affecting our future graduates and their families. My daughter Katie is a high school senior and today we ventured up to campus to pick up her cap and gown for this year’s highly non-traditional yet recently familiar pomp and circumstance. The events include a celebratory drive-through at the campus hub and then a commencement video presentation and virtual watch party. Whoo Hoo! Not exactly what most of considering an epic night. I must say that I am proud of the way Katie is taking it all in stride although as a father I wish she had the opportunity to create a different set of life long memories.

Looking past graduation festivities brings a very different set of considerations. And by now, many students have already determined where they will attend college. But amid global uncertainty, the new question of whether they should even begin taking classes in the fall has arisen. Amidst all these changes, incoming college students are faced with an important question, “Should I consider taking a gap semester?” Its a difficult question and the right answer may depend on how specific universities are responding, and the perspective of students and their tuition-paying families before embarking on their fall semester.

Our Current Situation

The trajectory of Coronavirus in America has proven unpredictable, which is why most universities do not yet know what the fall semester will look like. Many colleges around the country have expressed their intent in returning to in-person instruction in the fall. Others are publicly debating whether or not to keep students off-campus until 2021. Either way, it’s become evident that things will likely not return 100 percent back to normal by the time August rolls around. But to what degree social distancing will still need to be enforced is up in the air. This means that in all likelihood, incoming freshmen will be facing a different reality during their first semester as college students than they originally would have expected.

Online vs. In-Person Education

College is a place to network, develop bonds, and work closely with world-class faculty. Online learning, while effective to a degree, can deprive students of these in-person interactions typically experienced throughout one’s on-campus college career.

A new survey conducted by Simpson Scarborough explored how current college students and high school seniors felt about the transition to online classes. Of the nearly 1,100 participants, 50 percent said it was “worse” and 13 percent said “a lot worse” than in-person instruction.1 This is of course a highly subjective and very personal opinion. Our experience has been quite different. Katie has thrived during COVID and seems more committed to her school work than before the shelter in place. When I asked her about her positive experience with the online transition she cited increased flexibility with how and when she studied as the primary reason for her success. Other students may not have had a similar positive experience so to try and accommodate incoming students many colleges have extended the deadline for students to accept college offers. Amidst all this chaos, the decision is truly a hard one. In addition, incoming freshmen have had the added disadvantage of missing out on campus tours and in-person interviews.

Katie Luff's Graduation

Financial Implications

If universities don’t open back up for in-person instruction, students and their families must face the reality of deciding if it’s worth paying tuition and enrolling for the fall semester. The pandemic has already taken an enormous toll on families worldwide, and if incoming college students don’t get the in-person instruction and experience they are supposed to receive, they might consider a gap year.

In that Scarborough survey, when the high school students were asked how likely it was that they will go to college in the fall as they had planned, a fifth of respondents said it was likely or highly likely that they would not attend because of the pandemic.1 Not only is this worrisome for incoming freshmen, but it’s also concerning to the universities as well. Colleges, like so many businesses and individuals, will face financial hardship as a direct result of the current pandemic.

1. April Replication: National Student Survey
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