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COVID-19: Leaving College vs. Financial Obligations

You may be considering taking a break from college due to the pandemic, but before you decide, here's a look at your options and the financial implications.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned everyone’s lives upside down, including (and especially) college students trying to navigate the higher education landscape without being able to attend classes on campus. Even with two vaccines being distributed, it’s difficult to really predict what’s next, leaving many current and prospective students rethinking their higher education plans. Here’s a look at some of the options students can consider regarding taking time off, plus potential financial problems to consider before doing so.

Taking a break from your education

During fall 2020, a survey indicated that half of participating college students were interested in returning to campus amid the pandemic. However, not every campus opened for students to start the 2020–2021 academic year. There were also a number of schools that shifted to online-only or hybrid instruction. While virtual learning is a workaround for students, it’s not the same as walking the halls or living in a dorm for the first time. For students who aren’t sure about full-time enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic, here are your choices: 

  • Deferred enrollment: Some institutions allow you to put off enrolling, even if you’ve already been accepted, for up to a year or more. Find out if your school offers this option. It’s important to note that each school has its own deferral policies, so be sure to review them and make sure you qualify.
  • Semester break: Depending on the school, you may be allowed to take a semester break from your program. If you’re a current student worried about the quality of instruction or concerned about the continued increase in COVID-19 cases, you might be able to skip a semester. Talk to your college’s admission office or a school counselor about your options.
  • Part-time attendance: With part-time attendance, you can reduce your exposure to others as well as potentially take other steps to tailor your higher education experience during this time. If you’re enrolled at least half-time in college, you can still receive an in-school deferment on federal student loans to help your financial situation.

Related: Changing College Plans Amid COVID-19

Considering the financial impact

It’s important to remember that if you take time off college, there will be financial consequences. Here are some of the things to consider before you make a decision.

Student loans

If you haven’t already received federal funding, you can put off taking out student loans. However, you’ll likely need to resubmit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) when you decide to go back to school. If you took time off to work, your earnings may impact your grants.  

For college students who’ve already accepted funds, it’s not quite that simple. Even though federal student loans are subject to relief through September 2021 (for now), it’s far from certain whether further relief will be forthcoming. For those considering taking a break, it’s important to consider the following options: 

  • Deferment: You can ask to have some of your student loan payments put off to a later date based on your income.
  • Forbearance: This is another way to stop making payments for a set period of time, based on financial hardship, which is being considered with extra attention at this time.
  • Income-driven repayment: The government offers several payment plans based on your income. If your income has been impacted and you’re not in school, this can allow you to make payments as low as $0 per month.

Students with private student loans won’t have the same options as those with federal loans, however. Contact your servicer for information on how to manage your loans your loans, including refinancing and payment assistance programs. 

Related: College Financing in the Midst of COVID-19


If you’re attending a college with online-only classes, opting to live at home could save you thousands of dollars. However, the solution may not be that easy. Depending on your school’s COVID-19 guidelines, there are restrictions when it comes to living on campus, so your first step should be to determine whether or not that’s even an option. Even if you’ve paid for on-campus housing and your school is forced to shut down, a housing refund may not be guaranteed. And off-campus housing poses its own problems. Breaking a lease can be tricky, especially if the area is facing a lack of demand due to online-only classes. If you can’t find a sublet (or the landlord isn’t amenable to that idea), you may face a financial penalty. 


COVID-19 or not, taking time off can impact your private financial aid and scholarships. Many scholarships have eligibility requirements, like maintaining a certain GPA or your full-time student status. Institutional scholarships may also be impacted, because colleges and universities only have a set amount of financial aid dollars to distribute each year. Each scholarship and school will be different. Get clarity about your requirements before taking time off—and don’t just ask whether or not you will still qualify for the scholarship. Be sure to specifically ask whether or not the amount will change. 

Club and organization fees

Fraternities and sororities are expensive, and other club fees can add up as well. Depending on the organization, you may not be able to get refunded for any fees you’ve already paid. If you can get the fees back, ask whether or not you’ll have to re-apply to join the organization when you return to school. 

Related: 11 Unexpected College Costs You Should Know 

It’s reasonable to consider taking a break from college right now. Between the opportunities you’re losing from COVID-19 regulations and the stress this pandemic has caused everyone, taking a break could be beneficial to your educational journey—but don’t make the decision lightly. Take this advice into account to help you make the best decision for you.

Keep our COVID-19 student resources page bookmarked on your browser for easy access to pandemic information, updates, and advice from CollegeXpress that you need!

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