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Originally Published: Mar 12, 2020
Originally Published: Mar 12, 2020 Last Updated: Mar 18, 2020 7 min read
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A rapidly growing list of colleges have announced closures in the past few days in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus.

Since Seattle-area campuses started shutting down at the end of last week, more than 200 institutions nationwide have announced they will suspend normal operations as of Wednesday, according to one crowd-sourced document tracking closures. All together, more than three million college students may be affected.

Colleges' responses have varied: Some campuses are shifting from in-person classes to online instruction but keeping residence halls and other campus services open. Other colleges are telling students not to come back to campus at all after spring break. Very few of the campuses that have suspended in-person classes have any students with confirmed cases of COVID-19, but college leaders are making changes in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease.

This level of quick, widespread change is unprecedented in higher education, and the situation is evolving as colleges build out their closure or online-learning plans. Here's what we know so far about how the changes may affect financial aid and fees for tuition and room and board.

Will Colleges Give Refunds for Room & Board or Cancelled Classes?

As of Thursday morning, it appears only one college has completely canceled the remainder of the semester, and it's a college that doesn't charge traditional tuition. For others, course work will continue to the extent possible via distance-learning, which means tuition refunds are unlikely.

For students who are told to leave dorms, most colleges are still working out whether they'll give a refund. Mount Holyoke, for example, has told students it plans to share more information by March 20, the deadline for students to leave campus. Some colleges, including Amherst College, Duke University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, and Smith College, have already said they will pro-rate room and board charges, though the details are still being worked out.

Whether colleges will consider refunds for residence halls or meal plans will vary widely among institutions, according to Liz Clark, vice president of policy and research at the National Association of College and University Business Officers. At two-year colleges, a majority of students live off campus, many with their parents, while more than half of full-time undergraduates at private four-year colleges live on campus.

In general, those smaller, wealthier private colleges are the ones that have told students to leave for the remainder of the semester. By far, most colleges right now are announcing more modest changes, by extending their spring break or offering online courses for a few weeks. Those colleges don't appear to be offering any sort of discount. For example, Michigan State University, which has told its 55,000 undergraduates to prepare to attend classes online until April 20, said the university is not pro-rating room & board at this point.

Will I Still Get Paid for My Work-Study Job?

This decision ultimately lies with your college, but the U.S. Department of Education last week gave colleges the power to continue paying students via work study even if they aren't working due to closures related to COVID-19. Under the department's guidelines, colleges can still pay students through the Federal Work Study program as long as the college is paying other faculty and staff and continues to pay for its share of the program. (In most cases, colleges--or the employer--and the federal government split the cost of work study.)

What Should I Do If My Finances Change Due to Disruptions Related to the Coronavirus?

Financial aid administrators on every campus have the power to adjust individual student's financial aid or estimated family contribution--the amount the government calculates you can afford to pay--through a process called "professional judgement." The Education Department's new guidance says financial aid offices can consider changes brought on by disruptions caused by the new coronavirus, but that the process for handling them will not change. That means each student will have to individually ask for a review and will need to provide documentation, such as a paystub or letter of termination, to prove their circumstances have changed.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators recommends families look on the financial aid office website or reach out to the financial aid office directly to find out how they should proceed with a professional judgment request.

What Can I Do If I Need Help With Housing, Food, or Transportation?

As soon as closures started, student advocates criticized colleges for putting a disproportionate burden on low-income students who can't quickly afford to move home. In more extreme cases, students may not have a safe home to return to. Colleges have said that students with extenuating circumstances will be allowed to remain on campus. This requires getting approval from the college, and there are typically instructions on each college's page of COVID-19 announcements telling students whom to contact on campus. It's unclear how strict colleges are being about what constitutes a qualifying reason for needing to stay.

On Tuesday, a coalition of groups started a fund to provide emergency aid for students who need financial help during this time. Two student-focused affordability organizations, Edquity and Rise, have said they'll team up to match the first $5,000 in donations to the fund. (You can donate here.)

U-Haul, meanwhile, announced it would give 30 days of storage for free to students who are dealing with sudden college closures.

If your college doesn't have adequate information or resources, some grassroots movements have also sprung up on campuses to help students with safe places to stay. Examples include:

  • Resources, including emergency housing information, compiled by Primus, a student organization at Harvard that advocates for the university's low-income and first-generation students.
  • Housing and financial assistance for Yale students, organized by Yale alumni.
  • Students at Tufts University organized a mutual aid system to help students with storage, transportation and other needs.
  • Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said students there without a place to stay can contact her office.
  • Mount Holyoke has started an emergency fund to help students with the financial hardships associated with moving. You can find more information and donate here.