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As college students look to reduce costs, the answer isn't always clear cut

Students at the University of Washington in Seattle on campus for last day of in-person classes on March 6.
Karen Ducey

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic recession have many college students scrambling to reduce costs.

Some may opt to go to a state college instead of a private one, or commute rather than live on campus. Some may start out at a two-year community college to save money. Still others may decide to skip school this fall and return next year.

While the college decision deadline has passed, students can still make changes, said Shannon Vasconcelos, a college coach for Bright Horizons and former assistant director of financial aid at Tufts University.

"The big elephant in the room is: What is college going to look like in the fall?" Vasconcelos said. "Will it be on campus? Is it going to be online?"

Most have not announced their final plans yet.

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"If, in the coming weeks, we see a lot more announcements about schools going totally online, that will cause more students to rethink their plans," she said.

Universities and colleges have been responding with initiatives in the hopes of retaining or even attracting more students. Some — like the College of William & Mary, Delaware Valley University in Pennsylvania, Kansas City University and Central Michigan University — are freezing tuition.

Other schools, such as Cleveland State University, are looking to get creative. It recently announced a new two-for-one tuition program for the Fall 2020 freshman class. First-time freshmen who successfully complete the fall semester with a cumulative GPA of 2.75 or better will get their spring semester tuition covered by the university.

"We are acutely aware that this is no ordinary time, and the financial, emotional and health-related pressures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic are putting significant additional stress on high school seniors and their families," said Cleveland State University's president Harlan Sands.

"Our 2-for-1 Tuition Promise is specifically designed to make the entire college-going process easier, while reducing the financial burden for families and incentivizing students to succeed."

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However, don't bank on your college cutting costs, said higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of SavingForCollege.com. Most have not.

Institutions of higher learning are already hurting due to the pandemic, hit with costs such as having to return room-and-board fees to students who were sent home to complete the semester remotely, he explained.

"Colleges still need to pay their bills," Kantrowitz said. "They still need to pay for dorms even if no one is living in them."

Plus, enrollment will decline and there is going to be an increased demand for financial aid now that 21 million people are out of a job.

How to cut costs

Where you go to school dramatically affects the price you'll pay.

The average tuition and fees for a public two-year, in-district college was $3,730 for the 2019-20 school year, according to the College Board. A public four-year, in-state school cost $10,440 and a public four-year, out-of-state college ran $26,820. Meanwhile, a private nonprofit was priced at $36,880 for the 2019-20 year.

While studying at a two-year community college could certainly save you money, make sure that the class credits will transfer to a four-year school, Vasconcelos said.

It's a "common mistake" that students don't take the right classes and they wind up having to do an extra year or two at the four-year school, she said.

"That is a problem that is easily avoided by making sure that you are working with an academic counselor at the community college."

The big elephant in the room is: What is college going to look like in the fall? Will it be on campus? Is it going to be online?
Shannon Vasconcelos
college coach at Bright Horizons

The other big issue to consider when deciding to start out at a two-year college is the amount of financial aid you might or might not get when it's time to apply to a four-year school.

"Colleges are a lot less generous to transfer students than they are to incoming freshmen," Kantrowitz said. "You may be doing it to save money, but it may ultimately hurt you."

If you decide to take a gap year from your four-year program, check with your college to make sure that you are allowed to take classes at a community college before you do so. Many limit the amount you can take, Vasconcelos warned.

If you go over that amount, you could be considered a transfer student and would have to reapply. That means it would also affect your financial aid.

"If you are thinking you might do a community college, apply to the four-year school anyway at the beginning and see what the financial aid packages are," Vasconcelos said.

"You are sometimes surprised with a very generous package and then the four-year school is affordable."

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Another option is to choose a state public school over a private one. That is Kantrowitz's advice.

"You'll be getting a good, quality education," he said.

"You may not get as much financial aid" as you would from a private school, "but even without the financial aid, it will cost you a lot less," he added.

To cut costs even further, consider living at home instead of in a dorm. That will save $11,510 in room and board for public schools and $12,990 for private ones, according to the College Board.

Financial aid and scholarships

It's always smart to try to appeal the amount of financial aid you've received, especially now.

"Appeal if you have been affected financially by the pandemic," Kantrowitz said. "That can include job loss, salary reductions, being furloughed."

The same goes for merit scholarships and grant money.

Colleges are "showing up with money this year at much higher amounts than we've seen in the past," Vasconcelos added.

Private scholarships are also still available, she noted. Check with your high school guidance counselor or look up different grants and scholarships available at scholarships.com.

—CNBC's Jessica Dickler contributed to this report.

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