First came Covid. Then came online college. Then came the lawsuits.

There’s a firm in South Carolina, the Anastopoulo Law Firm, that says it’s suing some 30 higher learning institutions for tuition and board payback (including Columbia, Cornell, Purdue, UMass and UPenn) arguing breach of contract—saying in effect that these institutions charged students for a certain type of college campus experience this year and instead gave them virtual college lite. The lawsuits challenge the notion that Zoom learning lives up to the value of an actual classroom—learning in a community, with your peers, enjoying personal development.

Still, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to test the United States’ anxiety for reopening society, the question of reopening colleges arises, too, and asks—at what cost in people’s health and safety?

For many clients of financial advisors, college education is the single biggest funding need they face after saving for retirement. The questions advisors are asking include: Is your child’s college fully reopening or doing hybrid classes? If the college is reopening, do you really want it to? In one survey of more than 1,800 freshmen and returning students performed by research firm Simpson Scarborough, 43% of students didn’t feel safe returning to a socially distanced classroom.

Professors don’t like the idea either. One CFP licensee and lecturer at Texas A&M with professor clients says many of them flatly refuse to go back. Older people are more at risk, after all.

The confusing messages universities have sent to families about what’s happening have not helped, says Beth V. Walker, creator of the Center for College Solutions, which guides families through college planning.

In following social distancing guidelines, many classrooms would have to keep their students at least six feet apart. That means, as you’re taking notes off a chalkboard in your calculus, French and medieval poetry classes, the seats next to you have to be empty, as do the seats behind you and the seats next to them. Mark Kantrowitz, a consultant who works with families as publisher and vice president of research for Saving for College, says only a quarter of the classrooms would be full.

The alternative is watching your professor on Zoom or some other closed-circuit feed. Is that really worth it to a person paying, say, $45,000 a year for a private university education?

“The Chronicle of Higher Education has been tracking the reopening plans of colleges,” says Kantrowitz. He says that based on 1,200 schools the chronicle polled in mid-summer, a little more than half said they would reopen in person while 34% would do a hybrid approach and the rest of the schools would be online only (though 1% to 3% of the schools were sitting on the fence trying to come up with different solutions.)

Decisions To Make
In March, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which suspended student loan payments and temporarily paused interest rates on loans at zero. In early August, the program was extended until the end of 2020. The law also said that colleges could roll federal work-study money over into Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG).

The CARES Act also tried to solve some problems by earmarking $12.5 billion to colleges, half of which they must award in emergency financial aid grants to students to help them pay for online learning, food, course materials, housing, health care and technology. The aid was designed to help colleges with more students in need; 75% of it was allocated to colleges based on how many Pell Grant recipients they had, while 25% of the money went to schools based on their number of full-time non-Pell Grant recipients.

But the funds focused mostly on items related to campus life disruption in the pandemic. Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the universities had flexibility in how they determined which students were going to get the CARES grants, and it might seem arbitrary or unfair to some students who got turned down or found resources depleted quickly. “They could only give grants to students who experienced an expense due to the campus disruption because of Covid-19,” Coval says. “When you unpack that a little bit—and the [Department of Education] was clear about the implementation here—if you think about it, an expense is different from need. If a student came up and said ‘Well, my parents lost their job.’ … That’s not an expense because campus shut down.”

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