One year ago, rising cases of coronavirus put an abrupt halt to the fall semester on many college campuses, just as classes got underway.
This year, the delta variant is threatening to shut down schools once again. And the possibility of more campus closures has sparked renewed interest in college refund policies and tuition insurance.
Roughly 78% of colleges and universities plan to resume all in-person classes for the fall, and just 19% are planning a mix of in-person and online classes, according to a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Yet, already a few colleges and universities have announced they will start remotely due to rising cases of Covid, including the University of Texas at San Antonio and Stanislaus State in California.
“Due to the delta variant of Covid-19, and the need to reduce potential exposures on campus, we are temporarily delaying the start of in-person instruction and repopulation plans until Oct. 1,” Stanislaus’ President Ellen Junn said in a letter to the community.
For most students, distance learning is a poor substitute for in-person classes. And almost all say it’s not worth the same high cost.
“Paying full price for a fraction of the college experience is bound to leave many people disgruntled,” said Jill Gonzalez, an analyst at personal-finance site WalletHub.
Nearly half, or 46%, of students think universities did not do enough to support them during the pandemic, a recent WalletHub report found.
Going forward, some families are being more proactive when it comes to protecting their investment.
Laura Hoder, 52, recently bought a tuition refund policy for her daughter, who will be a junior at Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts. “There’s this unknown with what will happen with Covid,” she said.
Hoder, who works as a nurse in Fairfield, Connecticut, said she also wanted the additional coverage because of her job and her family’s increased risk.
“There’s an extra level of anxiety just because of what I’ve seen and I know.”
While a number of colleges and universities have said they will offer refunds of fees and room and board if campuses must close again, the reimbursement policies vary from school to school — and nearly all of them have drawn the line at tuition.
Depending on when a student withdraws during a semester, a school’s refund policy may reimburse a significant amount (specifically if it’s within the first month or so of the semester, although it varies by school).
However, refunds are typically offered on a sliding scale and most schools won’t give any money back at all after the fifth week of classes.
Many schools now also offer third-party tuition protection or it can also be purchased directly through a provider such as GradGuard or A.W.G. Dewar right up until the first day of classes.
Tuition insurance, also known as tuition refund insurance, generally covers families for medical or psychological reasons, with a few obvious exclusions, such as flunking out or being kicked out for disciplinary causes (although the extent of coverage varies from plan to plan).
GradGuard’s tuition insurance starts at $39.95 for $2,500 of coverage per term, although most families buy $10,000 of coverage per term, which starts at $106, to protect their out-of-pocket costs, not including loans and grants. That covers tuition, as well as financial losses from room and board and academic fees.
“Since the start of Covid, we have seen a dramatic interest from schools, students and families,” said Natalie Tarangioli, director of marketing at GradGuard, which now works with more than 400 colleges.
Before the pandemic, health conditions such as mononucleosis and pneumonia were among the top medical conditions that stood in the way of graduating on time, or at all.
“The real concern last year was that students would get Covid,” Tarangioli said. This year, there’s added worry given the delta variant, mental health and wellness as well as other risks, she added.
“Sales are more than four times what they were in 2019 and double what they were in 2020.”
Even though nearly two-thirds of parents, or 63%, said their child’s post-high school plans have returned to what they were before the coronavirus crisis, cost remains a top concern.
Tuition and fees plus room and board for a four-year private college averaged $50,770 in the 2020-21 school year; at four-year, in-state public colleges, it was $22,180, according to the College Board, which tracks trends in college pricing and student aid.
When adding in other expenses, the total tab can be more than $70,000 a year for undergraduates at some private colleges or even out-of-state students attending four-year public schools.
While the cost of a four-year college degree continues to skyrocket, tuition insurance is relatively inexpensive, said Nick Holeman, a certified financial planner and head of financial planning at Betterment.
In addition, some tuition insurance policies will reimburse you for up to 100% of the total cost of attendance — not just tuition — including room and board and even books and other supplies.
However, not all policies offer the same level of protection, Holeman added.
“Many tuition insurance policies around Covid-19 only pay out if your child actually contracts the disease,” he said. “So you won’t be reimbursed if you pull your child out due to concerns around the delta variant or any future outbreaks.”
“You also won’t be reimbursed if your child’s college changes its method of instruction from in-person to virtual,” Holeman added, which means you will still be on the hook for college classes over Zoom.