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With the global coronavirus pandemic moving past the six-month mark, college students and their families are adjusting to a new normal — including new health guidelines, wearing masks and staying six feet apart from others wherever you go.
Most students started or returned to college this fall under these new and complex guidelines. And whether your student is living on campus in a dorm, in an off-campus apartment, or attending classes from the family living room, the start of the school year is likely a mixture of confusion and uncertainty.
In addition to socially distanced move-ins and online orientations, there’s another source of frustration for students and parents this year: coronavirus fees, and hybrid or remote learning fees.
What are these fees, and how might they impact your family's finances this semester? We’ve compiled answers to commonly asked questions about coronavirus and remote learning fees.
Student fees (which appear on the college statement alongside charges for tuition, room and board) are nothing new. These fees typically cover costs associated with science labs and art classes, new student orientation, and other campus activities.
This academic term you may have noticed something different — a coronavirus fee intended to cover things like mandatory testing for students, staff and faculty and “reconfiguring campus facilities for safety.”
The amount varies from campus to campus. For example, Merrimack College in Massachusetts is charging students $475 per semester to manage the virus, while before move-in, Elon University in North Carolina mailed students at-home COVID testing kits for $129.
Some colleges chose to test all students at the start of the semester, while others are also testing students throughout the semester. In some cases where regular testing is required, students are permitted to get tested off campus — as long as the tests meet their university’s requirements.
With the fall term underway, a subset of younger people have been ignoring CDC and community guidelines, with unauthorized college parties on the rise. And with about 40% of coronavirus patients between the ages of 20 to 54 needing hospitalization, some universities may decide to up their testing requirements to keep students and faculty safe.
In addition to initial and routine coronavirus testing for in-person instruction, there are other “hidden” costs of shifting to an online or hybrid learning environment.
Higher education in the coronavirus age is expensive for institutions. It’s estimated that about 60% of new and returning students returned to in-person learning. Meanwhile, the other 40% are attending classes online or in a hybrid environment. At this point in the fall, quite a few schools have already needed to be prepared for a quick pivot from in-person to online instruction as COVID cases on and near campus exploded.
Some of the expenses schools have taken on include technological shifts in instruction, such as software, equipment and additional training for faculty and staff.
Chapman University, for example, has spent $20 million on technology and public health costs. They estimate that shifting to an online semester will cost the school $110 million in additional revenue.
More bills aren't what anyone needs right now. Luckily, there are some ways you and your student can try to offset these expenses.
The short answer: it depends.
In late March, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act which states that half of the $12 billion in federal funding distributed to colleges and universities be passed directly to currently enrolled students in the form of emergency grants.
Many schools distributed these funds and continue to offer financial relief for students experiencing hardship.
Some colleges have also tapped into creative ways of raising funds to help their students. For example, the Community College of Denver started a Covid-19 Student Emergency Aid Fund for students who have been financially impacted by the pandemic. The school has raised $70,000 in cash assistance for students to cover food, housing and technological supplies like laptops.
These programs vary by school, and not all funding is guaranteed. Your student may need to meet specific requirements, such as completing a FAFSA and applying directly through the school offices offering these programs.
Other factors, like academic standing and citizenship status, may play a part as well.
The best place to start is by contacting the school’s financial aid or student accounting office to explore your options offsetting these additional fees.
A common question on a lot of students' and parents' minds is: how long will these fees last?
Although it’s hard to say, many universities are not planning on ending these fees for at least the next year.
Currently, more than 60 colleges have been sued by students demanding refunds for these extra fees. Some students have even banded together to sign petitions demanding full or partial refunds — like The University of Minnesota, which has a petition circulating on Change.org with over 500 signatures and counting.
Some college students and their families are looking to the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act to offer relief from extra college fees. This Act would provide an additional $90 billion in state grants for education, with a third of the funds going to higher education institutions. The HEROES Act could be approved as soon as early October.
Many university and college faculty are experiencing just as much uncertainty and frustration about the need for additional fees, but for other reasons. Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall University, warns that a reduction in fees needed to cover costs associated with remote learning and COVID-19 safety management could lead to mass layoffs for university faculty.
With all the changes and challenges in 2020, some college students are exploring other options this school year. Many are taking a gap year with plans to return to school when there are fewer safety risks, restrictions and fees.
Because of the pandemic, a gap year in 2020–21 may not be the traditional travel-the-world experience but there are plenty of other options: volunteering, remote internships, working full-time to build up their resume and savings, helping family members, and more.