How to pay for college without going broke during coronavirus

Having a hard time covering your educational costs this year? Take these steps. (iStock)

School is back in session, but for many students, attending college in person just isn’t an option. As if navigating virtual learning isn't hard enough, keeping up with loan payments is a struggle. And many are wondering how to pay for college without going completely broke during this time.

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Due to economic hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic, paying for school is difficult in today’s climate (and many are already drowning in student loan debt). According to a recent study from CollegeFinance.com, 42% of students said the coronavirus pandemic has impacted their ability to pay tuition and fees.

Fortunately, there are several ways to cover your college expenses, as well as reduce the cost of college overall. Here are college savings options to keep in mind.

  1. Seek federal student loans, scholarships and grants
  2. Consider private student loans to fill the gaps
  3. Don’t borrow from retirement funds
  4. Apply for work-study programs

1. Seek federal student loans, scholarships and grants

Federal student loans and grants can be a low-cost way to finance your education. Thanks to the CARES Act — and the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund it created — many colleges are now offering grants for students struggling due to the pandemic.

To be eligible, you’ll need a FAFSA on file with your school’s financial aid office. The FAFSA is required for any other federal loans and grants as well.

Another option is to appeal existing federal financial aid award letters if you’ve already been granted one. Again, you’ll need to contact your college’s finance office to start this process. You’ll also need documentation proving that your household income and contributions have changed since you initially filed.

“Appeal the financial aid award,” said Kevin Walker, CEO of CollegeFinance.com. “It doesn't hurt to ask for more aid or at least to ask for a review of your current aid package. If there are any negative changes in the family's finances, be ready to explain them.”

If you need help with your scholarship search, your school's financial aid office may be able to help get you started.

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2. Consider private student loans to fill the gap

If federal loans and grants won’t cover the full costs of your education, private loans can be a route to explore. Rates vary widely on these loans, so make sure to shop around if they’re on your radar (tools like Credible can help you do this without hurting your credit score).

“Private student loans can be a good option in certain circumstances,” Walker said. “If the student is able to find someone with very good to great credit and strong income to co-sign a private loan, it may be possible to borrow at rates lower than available through the federal student loan program.”

You can easily add a cosigner to your loan application via Credible. With Credible, you can even compare multiple cosigners to see which one gets you the best loan rates and terms.

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“It’s really important for the student and co-signer to keep an eye on the total cost of borrowing — from all loan programs — across all the years of enrollment,” Walker said. “As a rule of thumb, a student should try to end up with total student loan payments that don't exceed 10 to 12% of their monthly gross income upon graduation.”

You can use an online student loan calculator to find out the costs of your debt so you'll know exactly what you're dealing with when making your financial plans.

3. Don’t borrow from retirement funds

Borrowing from 401Ks, IRAs and other retirement funds can mean big penalties and extra tax liabilities when it comes time to file your household tax returns.

It could also put added financial stress on you and your parents as they age — especially if health conditions keep them from working and saving money.

Instead of borrowing from retirement accounts, parents might consider a parent PLUS loan — a type of federal loan designed for parents. Though these have higher rates than federal student loans, they may still be more affordable than private loans.

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4. Apply for work-study programs

You should also look for ways to contribute to your college costs, like getting a part-time job, applying for a work-study appointment or resident advisor position, or securing a scholarship.

“Treat scholarship search like a job,” said Brian Galvin, the chief academic officer at Varsity Tutors. “There is a lot of scholarship money out there, but very little of it will come and find you. The idea of a full-ride is generally reserved for scholarship athletes. Most students who get all or most of college covered do so not with one full scholarship straight from the university, but with several smaller scholarships from corporations, nonprofit organizations, local civic groups and other sources.”

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Additionally, you might look into ways to reduce the costs your education comes with. This could include transferring to a different college where tuition is lower, taking a gap year, or moving back in with your parents.

“If your school is giving the option of studying remotely this semester or academic year, consider doing just that,” Walker said. “Students can save quite a lot in housing, food and other expenses by being at home. This isn't the ideal way to experience a college education, but under the current circumstances, it can be a way to save money for a semester or two.”

The bottom line

Paying for college can be difficult in today’s economic climate, but there are ways you can both reduce your college costs and finance those expenses affordably. Just make sure you talk with your financial aid office and do your part to contribute.

If private student loans are in the cards, shop around for rates and take out only what you need to pay for college so you can meet your financial goals.

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If you need more repayment options or aren't sure which option makes sense for you, consider reaching out to a financial advisor or your school for guidance on repaying student loans.