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Tips from a debt expert and mother of 5 college kids: Is college this fall worth it?

CNBC Select speaks to a debt-relief attorney and mother of five college students about whether or not college is worth it amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Photo courtesy of Leslie Tayne, Tayne Law Group
Select’s editorial team works independently to review financial products and write articles we think our readers will find useful. We may receive a commission when you click on links for products from our affiliate partners.

There's no doubt that college will look very different this fall.

As schools prepare to hold class in person, completely virtual or some combination of the two, students and their families are evaluating what they feel comfortable spending on a college education that is now taught partially, or fully, online — as well as how to afford college during a time of financial distress.

"With changes in family financial circumstances, this has to be weighed against what can be borrowed and for what purposes," Leslie Tayne, a debt-relief attorney at Tayne Law Group, tells CNBC Select. "Having an open and honest conversation about your thoughts on the matter, as well as possible other options, is the best way to decide as a family what the right move is."

Tayne, who is also a mother of five college students, talks to us about parents' options to pay for college this semester and how to know if it's worth the steep tuition cost.

Financial aid options for paying for college

Tayne, who is using a mix of cash savings and loans to pay for her children's tuition, suggests looking at all options when it comes to affording college.

Naturally, starting early with a 529 plan lets you save up in advance, especially when paired with a card that lets you invest cash back, like the Fidelity® Rewards Visa Signature® Card (2% cash back) and the Upromise® Mastercard® (1.25% cash back). But if you or your family's finances have been affected by the pandemic and you're currently in need of assistance, there are options.

The appeal process: If you haven't already, contact your school's financial aid office to explain your situation and ask about any available sources of funding. They can adjust the financial aid for students whose parents' income has changed since filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). "In fact, because the FAFSA uses income information from two years ago, you can appeal your financial aid at any time, including in the middle of a semester," Tayne says.

Submit a written, one-page letter of appeal detailing and providing proof of financial distress. This could be a notice of termination or furlough, reduced working hours, unemployment or medical bills. 

"Being as specific as possible about your hardship will help your case," Tayne says. "Continue to follow up with the financial aid office to keep track of the progress with your account."

The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF): As part of the CARES Act passed in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, colleges received funds from the federal government so that they can offer emergency grants to students, covering everything from tuition to housing to food, course materials, technology and health care.

As Tayne notes, under HEERF, institutions must use at least 50% of the funds they received as emergency aid towards students whose lives have been disrupted by the coronavirus. The program requires that the student has filed the FAFSA directly through their institution.

Other options: If you're unable to get additional aid, Tayne suggests adjusting your budget any way you can. "Look carefully to see if you can make some temporary cuts or find ways to bring in additional income," she says. 

While millions of families take out student loans for their children to attend school, use private student loans as a last resort, suggests Tayne. They can be expensive to pay off and don't offer the same borrower protections that federal student loans do.

"There is nothing wrong with taking a loan for school as long as the terms are reasonable and you're confident in your ability to pay it back after graduation," Tayne says.

For those who may have not planned to take out loans and are thinking of charging tuition onto a credit card, Tayne doesn't recommend it. "If you're not able to pay the full cost, turning to federal student loans and then private student loans is preferable to paying on a credit card," she says.

Relying on a credit card to cover college tuition may seem easy, but if you don't pay it off immediately, you eat away at your credit limit (which hurts your credit score). You also rack up high interest. Not to mention, colleges and universities that do allow you to pay via credit card usually charge a convenience fee of around 2.5% for each payment you make. That means that charging a one-time $10,000 for tuition would come with an additional $250 in fees.

Is college still worth the tuition?

If you're still deciding whether it's even worth paying a high tuition bill this semester, take a serious look at the various learning models your child's school is offering and whether they'll fit into your student's degree requirements.

Some classes, such as pre-med, don't translate easily online, Tayne says. In fact, before the COVID-19 pandemic, medical schools like Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Georgetown School of Medicine didn't even accept or consider prerequisite courses taken online because they value how you work in-person with others in a classroom or laboratory.

For many students, like Tayne's children, a completely virtual model takes away the social interactions built into college culture.

"It's between you and your student to determine the kind of education they want," she says.

While there's no right or wrong answer applicable to every family, it's worth exploring alternate options until the situation improves. A local community college or state school operating in a different learning model — or even a less expensive online program — may be a more cost-effective choice for the time being as your child can take transferable courses.

"This can be a good option for freshmen or sophomores, especially," Tayne says. "As your student gets further into their course of study, many schools won't accept the transfer credits. You may need to discuss this with your current school because you wouldn't want to lose the admissions spot [and have] to re-apply." 

Before doing this, keep in mind the potential downfalls of transferring schools, such as needing to take additional semesters to graduate.

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Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.