Many colleges are welcoming students back for in-person learning and dormitory living this fall semester. Looming over everything: Campuses could shut back down anytime.

With COVID-19 cases still high, many colleges are developing shutdown contingency plans alongside their reopening arrangements.

At the same time, the pandemic is fueling new debate about whether colleges should charge the same tuition for online and in-person classes. Tuition typically covers the cost of instruction — salaries, software, labs and such — and that cost at many schools may have increased.

Here’s what students can expect as the fall shapes up:

1. Some schools have cut tuition, but tuition decreases and additional aid aren’t the norm.

“If I had to make bets, I would say a lot of colleges will be [freezing tuition] until they get a better sense of the economy,” said Arun Ponnusamy, chief academic officer at the college admissions and application counseling company Collegewise.

2. Many colleges aren’t publicizing their shutdown contingency plans — or how refunds will work. But students can look to how their school handled refunds in the spring to gauge how fall might play out.

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University gave refunds for on-campus housing and meal plans, for example, while other colleges also offered direct refunds for students. But some colleges opted for account credit instead.

3. How can you prepare? If you are returning to campus housing, contact your school and ask about its shutdown contingency plans. You will want to know what factors would cause it to shut down again. This could be a campus COVID-19 outbreak of a certain size, an increase in local cases or other factors.

If you know the metrics your school is looking at, you can anticipate it and react more confidently. Other steps include:

• Make backup plans for housing if your campus closes. Determine if you will go home, stay with a friend, get your own apartment or something else. Communicate your intentions with those you plan to stay with or scope out affordable apartments in advance.

• Ask your college about emergency funds and grants if a campus closure will cause you financial hardship.

• Plan how you would use a refund. If your school offers a direct refund, consider whether you will need that money for living expenses. If you don’t need the money for living expenses, send the refund back to your student loan servicer. Doing so will keep your overall loan balance down and save you money in the long run.


Cecilia Clark is a writer at NerdWallet. E-mail: