How to choose a college during the coronavirus crisis

What to do when deciding on colleges and you can’t visit the campus due to coronavirus closures. (iStock)

If you're starting your college search, one of the first things you should do is schedule a campus visit. You can meet with an admissions counselor, take a tour of classrooms, dorms and dining halls and get a chance to talk to current students. Unfortunately, the fall 2020 incoming class could only take a virtual tour, look at campus maps or social media to get a feel for campus life.

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The coronavirus pandemic closed schools, which impacted admissions decisions for prospective college students around the world. Instead of going with the gut feeling you get when you walk around the grounds, students must rely more heavily on three other critical factors when choosing which college to attend.

1. Financial aid

School is expensive, and students have to consider how to pay for college, including tuition and fees for things like room and board, books and more. When reviewing admissions packages, one of the essential considerations is financial aid. If you’re offered a grant, scholarship or loan, the information will usually be included in the admissions letter.

You probably applied for FAFSA federal grants and loans, which are based on need. Since you filled out the paperwork, your family's financial situation may have changed due to the coronavirus. Perhaps your parent was laid off or you lost a part-time job?

HOW DO YOU QUALIFY FOR A STUDENT LOAN?

Reach out to schools and ask that they re-evaluate the financial aid offer. If more funding is needed, you can also compare private student loan and personal loan rates on Credible. Analyzing financial aid packages can help you decide which college is the best value.

2. Affordability

Public schools are generally less expensive than private universities as long as you live in the same state where it is located. According to College Board, the average yearly tuition for a public four-year college is $9,410 for an in-state student and $23,890 for an out-of-state student. The average private four-year college yearly tuition is $32,410.

Sometimes financial aid packages offered to out-of-state or private school students put tuition costs closer in line with in-state students—but not always. Only you can decide which college is the most affordable for your financial situation.

One thing to consider during the coronavirus is whether the college you want to attend will hold fall classes online. Unfortunately, many are not adjusting the tuition rate for distance learning situations. Since you won’t be getting the on-campus experience, you may decide to attend an online community college instead, where tuition costs much less. If you take this route, it’s critical to ensure that credits will transfer if you plan to enroll in the four-year college when campuses reopen.

COMPARE PRIVATE VS. FEDERAL STUDENT LOAN INTEREST RATES

3. Location

Location is always a consideration for students, and you need to determine how far away from home you’re comfortable being. With closing campuses, this could be a more important factor in your decision. If another wave of the coronavirus happens in the fall, the flexibility to return home more easily may impact your choice.

HOW TO PAY OFF $200,000 IN STUDENT LOANS FAST

Research how the college handled the closing of campuses during the virus outbreak in March. Some required students to leave dorms with little notice, while others allowed students to stay in their rooms until they finished the final exams. Considering the logistics and location could impact your decision.

Other ways college students can navigate coronavirus

Admission decisions for the fall are typically made by May 1, but this year several top colleges pushed the deadline to June 1, allowing more time for academic advising and weighing all the factors.

You can still get a feeling for campus life and what academic programs schools have to offer, but it will be online. Some colleges are navigating campus closures by giving virtual tours. Some are also letting prospective college students get a taste of their majors and minors by allowing them to attend an online class. Admissions counselors are scheduling video meetings with students, and they’re also offering online chats. It’s important to take advantage of all the ways universities are adjusting to help prospective college students.

Deciding which college to attend is a tough enough decision -- and doing it during a pandemic adds a challenge. But know you’re not alone. Thousands of other students are in the same situation, and schools are navigating the change along with them. The coronavirus gave us all a lesson in patience and ingenuity. Remember, we’re all in this together. How a college pivots to address a pandemic can provide insights about its true mission, values and ability to innovate during change.