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Attending college from a laptop in your childhood bedroom might not be the experience you had in mind.
But just because you’re not living in a dorm this fall doesn’t mean that expenses disappear. Your cost of attendance might have changed if you’re learning remotely due to COVID-19, but colleges will factor at-home or off-campus living expenses into your overall costs.
And you can still use financial aid — including student loans — to pay for them.
How cost of attendance works
Colleges determine their own cost of attendance for each academic year. This amount factors in all of your direct costs including tuition, fees, room and board, as well as estimates for books, supplies, technology and transportation. Schools often have different cost-of-attendance calculations for students who live in dorms, off campus or even in another state.
Your financial aid and student loans are applied first toward tuition and fees, then room and board. Any remaining funds are distributed to you to use for living expenses.
Your aid package might shift if your cost of attendance changes.
For example, you can borrow money only up to the total cost of attendance; if that number goes down, so does the amount you can borrow. And if any part of your aid package is pegged to living on campus and you no longer are, your aid could change.
How cost of attendance is different this year
Cost of attendance is adjusted annually, but some schools are modifying their calculations due to the pandemic. For example, Williams College, a private school in Williamstown, Massachusetts, reduced its cost of attendance for 2020-21 by 15%. Williams College is planning a hybrid of in-person and remote learning — students can live on campus if they want to.
Schools that go fully remote will have few — or no — options for on-campus housing. And that could mean heading back to your parents' house or finding off-campus accommodations.
Your school might break down the cost of attendance according to your living situation. Here’s what 2020-21 looks like at the University of California, Berkeley, for example, where students will attend remotely for the start of the fall semester:
Living in a campus residence hall: $42,460.
Living in an on-campus apartment: $39,876.
Living in an off-campus apartment: $36,920.
Living with relatives: $29,492.
If your school goes remote, the cost of attendance will be modified for all students. But if you have the choice to return to campus and stay home instead, you must let the college know your plans so your cost is adjusted.
“It’s actually less expensive if students stay home and take classes remotely,” says William Hudson Jr., vice president for student affairs at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, which is planning a hybrid approach.
Cost of attendance represents the ceiling on what you can borrow. Every dollar you don’t have to borrow is a dollar you don’t have to repay, with interest, down the road. That means if you stay home rent-free or share an apartment with others to save on living costs, you’re way ahead in the long run.
Here are some possible college living arrangements you’ll have in the fall and how to pay for them:
Living on campus for in-person or online classes
If your school is operating an in-person or hybrid model where you live on campus, your cost of attendance won’t change, which means your financial aid won’t change either.
But your campus could close during the school year due to COVID-19. If this happens, as it did to many colleges last spring, your school will likely reimburse a prorated amount for nontuition costs like room, board and facility fees.
Multiple schools that are planning to open in person are also moving to remote instruction after Thanksgiving break. Some schools are also staggering move-in dates. Those factors could alter the total cost of room and board you’re paying this semester.
For example, at Penn State University, students will start the fall semester in person but switch to remote learning in late November. To reflect this change, the cost of a standard double room was lowered by $607 — from $3,427 to $2,820 — and the midlevel meal plan was lowered from $2,449 to $2,193.
Living off campus on your own or with roommates
Living off campus, you won’t have room and board taken into consideration, but you'll have additional expenses like rent, groceries and utilities. You can use financial aid to pay these bills.
Colleges often use regional data and student surveys to come up with estimates for off-campus rent and utilities, and oftentimes those amounts aren’t too different from living on campus, says Jill Desjean, policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. However, your school will always consider living off campus to be cheaper than living on campus.
Montclair State University in New Jersey, for example, estimates that housing and meals for in-state students who live off campus will cost $13,068 for the fall semester, compared with $16,193 for room and board on campus.
Living at home with your parents
Your expenses may be lower at home with your parents than living on your own or on campus, but colleges will factor into their estimates the costs your parents take on by having you home, Desjean says.
“When you bring that student back in, the lights are on longer, you have to feed them so the cost of food goes up, heating — everything goes up,” Desjean says. You can use financial aid to offset your contribution to increased home bills.
And remember that the school’s cost of attendance impacts how much financial aid you can get, but it's an estimate rather than an exhaustive list. You might need additional technology and equipment to learn more effectively from home, such as a dedicated desk setup and laptop if you don’t have one.
How to get more funds for living expenses
If you or your family run into financial difficulty during the school year, ask your school about getting more financial aid. This requires you to submit a financial aid appeal to your school with a letter and to update the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
You might also qualify for emergency aid such as cash grants, completion scholarships, emergency student loans or vouchers.