What to do if you can't afford college right now

If coronavirus has you worried about paying your tuition, these are your options. (iStock)

The coronavirus outbreak has wreaked havoc on colleges and students alike. For universities, the lack of tuition for months on end has caused serious financial problems. Some schools may even go bankrupt as a result.

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Students, on the other hand, are having trouble paying for college. Their parents have been laid off (losing their annual incomes) or furloughed, they’ve lost their work-study jobs, and many are unsure if they'll be able to afford monthly payments due for college next semester — on top of concerns they already had about piling student debt.

Fortunately, there are some options that can alleviate the pressure, especially if you don't have much college savings. If you're interested in exploring student loans, an online marketplace Credible can give you a detailed look at private lenders.

If you’ve fallen on hard times and are worried about affording college, these solutions may be able to help.

Amend or file a FAFSA

The first step is to max out your federal financial aid. If you haven’t already filed your FAFSA, head to StudentAid.gov and do so as soon as possible. If you’ve already filed a FAFSA in the past, log into your StudentAid.gov account and revise it to reflect any changes to your household's personal finance. This could qualify you for additional scholarships and grants you weren’t previously eligible for.

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Consider private loans

Private student loans are another option you can explore if paying for school is too tough. These typically offer quick funding, and they’re not need-based either. You will need to have a decent credit score (or a co-signer who does), though, and you may pay higher rates than you would on federal loans.

If you want to make sure you’re getting the best deal on your private loans, use a tool like Credible to compare rates and terms from several lenders at once — all without hurting your credit score.

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Talk to your financial aid office

Getting in touch with your school’s financial aid office is critical, too. According to Leslie Tayne, a debt relief attorney at the Tayne Law Group, students can ask for financial aid reviews or even appeal their existing financial aid if they’re facing personal finance hurdles and are not able to afford their monthly tuition payments.

“Schools will most likely consider requests for appeals for more financial aid,” Tayne said.

“Students can write an appeal letter to their college’s financial aid department and check their school’s website for information on sending the letter and the appeal process.”

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Thanks to the CARES Act, many schools also have emergency grants they can give students who are suffering financially due to COVID-19. Make sure to ask your financial aid office pr a financial advisor about these options as well.

Pick up a gig or side hustle

In light of all the stay-at-home orders, gig work has surged lately. Americans are using apps like DoorDash, UberEats, Shipt, and InstaCart in record numbers, and it’s creating more part-time job opportunities than ever for potential gig workers.

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If you have transportation, consider picking up some extra work on one of these or other popular apps. Most let you make your own schedule, and you can typically start working (and saving for college) right away.

Switch to a school closer to home

It might not be ideal, but transferring to a closer school — maybe even a community college, can also help if you’re strapped for cash. This would allow you to live at home (without all those dorming costs) and commute to your classes instead. Another nice perk? Courses at community colleges or an in-state public university are typically more affordable than other options (especially compared to a private college).

“Private and out-of-state universities can significantly increase the total cost of college attendance,” Tayne said. “Students should consider local public colleges if comparable programs are offered. For first and second-year undergraduate students, prerequisite classes can often be taken at local community colleges, which can further lower the cost of earning a degree.”

If you do switch schools, just make sure you look into how your credits transfer. Speak to an admissions counselor or set up a virtual appointment to discuss your options.

Take a gap year to find your footing

If finances are too strapped, taking a year off may be a smart move. Use the time to work, save up cash, and maybe even take a few online prerequisite courses to stay ahead. You could also find an internship in your ideal career path to make the gap year even more meaningful.

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Don’t let finances slow you down

Paying for school may be hard given these unprecedented times, but there’s still hope. If you’re worried about paying the bills next school year, update your FAFSA, talk to your financial aid office or financial advisor, and explore gig work and private student loans. If all else fails, consider taking some time off and boost your college savings before enrolling back in school.

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