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.

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. 

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