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Study: Where Students Can Save the Most Money Amid Shifts to Distance Learning

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More colleges turned to distance learning for the fall semester to slow the spread of the coronavirus on campus. By choosing fully remote lessons, students may avoid expenses like room and board.

LendingTree researchers compared the costs of room and board and other in-person expenses (such as laundry and transportation) to tuition to estimate where students could save the highest percentage of money by learning remotely.

For context, room and board costs $10,900 a year on average at the 1,600-plus universities we examined. Here’s what else we learned.

Key findings

  • Students at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia could save an estimated 86% in college costs by learning remotely. Room and board and other in-person expenses cost $17,500, while tuition costs $2,900.
  • Students at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., can lower the cost of attending college by 80%, or $19,300 a year, by avoiding room and board costs and other in-person expenses through distance learning.
  • Students at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York can reduce their education expenses by 79%, according to our analysis. Tuition costs $7,500, compared with the $27,300 in room and board and other in-person living expenses.
    • If a student had to take out a loan for $27,300 and paid it off over 10 years at 2.75% — the rate for federal direct student loans — it would cost them $4,000 in lifetime interest charges.
  • The lowest-ranking schools tend to be those in low cost-of-living areas with high tuition costs. Berea College in central Kentucky takes the lowest spot. Students here would save just 17% of the total cost of school by learning remotely.
  • Students at Beloit College in southern Wisconsin spend $9,600 on room and board and $1,400 in other living expenses. That equals 18% of the total combined cost after factoring in $51,500 in tuition. Students at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., could also save 18% of the cost of college by learning remotely.
  • At the state level, Wyoming students would save the most on average — 71% — if they didn’t owe room and board and other in-person living expenses. Iowa students would save the least — 31%.
  • Overall, room and board and other in-person living expenses account for 42% of the cost of attending college, on average, at the schools we examined.

Table of contents

Where students can save the most money

For the most part, students who attend schools with comparatively lower tuition costs than on-campus living costs can see the largest savings amid the shifts to distance learning.

Unlike the majority of the schools on this list, our first-ranked school, Curtis Institute of Music, has an all-scholarship policy. (It’s important to note that LendingTree researchers didn’t exclude any schools based on these types of policies).

That means the Philadelphia college provides merit-based, full-tuition scholarships, regardless of ability to pay, so its students were already reaping the benefits of a more affordable education prior to the COVID-19 crisis. And the school has said it will “continue to make supplemental grant payments to qualifying off-campus students who have an approved and executed financial aid award for the 2020-2021 school year.”

From a geographical standpoint, the top 10 schools are all in the Northeast or South.

Public vs. private

Curtis is the only private university among our top 10 schools, which is to be expected when you consider that public universities tend to be billed as the more affordable option for students based on factors such as lower tuition rates and qualifications for in-state scholarships.

Three of our top 10 schools, for example, are institutions of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. The coronavirus pandemic has impacted public universities as well, which may lead to rising expenses for students as costs rise for the colleges themselves.

Where students can save the least money

The clear commonality among the schools on this end of the spectrum is high tuition costs. So switching to online learning — and cutting living expenses like room and board — isn’t going to benefit those students as much.

Midwest universities took eight of the bottom 10 spots in our rankings. The only exceptions were Berea College (Kentucky) in the South and Clark University (Massachusetts) in the Northeast. And all the schools in the bottom 10 are private institutions.

Although Berea College ranks at the bottom of our list, it advertises that it hasn’t charged tuition since 1892. We included it here because the school cites that tuition would cost more than $44,000 without its tuition promise scholarship that “makes it possible for you to graduate debt-free.”

So while Berea College students won’t reap much in the way of additional savings by switching to distance learning, they aren’t facing the steep tuition costs that others at the bottom of our list are encountering.

Do students still owe room and board if learning is remote?

Policies will vary by school, but — on the whole — no. If students switch to a 100% distance learning situation, they shouldn’t have to pay for room and board since the schools aren’t providing those resources, said Jill Desjean, a policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).

“A lot of this hinges on the premise of what sort of student you were before all of this hit,” Desjean said. For example:

  • Students who lived on campus would save on room and board
  • Students who were commuting would save on transportation but not room and board

The primary caveat is that not all universities are going exclusively remote, despite the coronavirus’ grip on the U.S. So for those offering a hybrid approach, with both on-campus and online courses, it could mean students would still owe room and board.

Room and board costs: 2020-2021 examples

LendingTree researchers looked at all universities evenly for this study. So tuition and room-and-board announcements by colleges and universities related to the COVID-19 crisis were left out. But the specifics can provide details of the massive impacts on the savings, or costs, for students. For example:

  • Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., isn’t charging room and board (about $18,400 a year) for those studying exclusively from home, but it has included a $10,000 allowance in financial aid for students to help with food and housing expenses for the year.
  • The University of Colorado Colorado Springs said tuition and fees will remain the same regardless of instruction mode. On-campus housing and expenses range from $10,400 to $14,200 a year for in-state residents.
  • Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., offered 50% credits (or refunds) from spring room-and-board charges, while also saying it’d lower these costs for the fall semester.

5 tips to make distance learning more effective

No. 1: Address isolation proactively

“Just because you don’t share a physical campus doesn’t mean you can’t build meaningful relationships with classmates and professors,” said Andrew Pentis, LendingTree’s senior writer for student loans. “A Zoom meeting could be a helpful, if not ideal, way to create a study group before a big exam. … Students with outside interests should look for clubs, associations and social groups to join as well.”

No. 2: Manage your time well

Switching to a distance learning environment can be difficult to those who aren’t used to the freedom that comes with a less structured environment. A daily and weekly schedule that includes both academic and non-academic items can help students create a schedule with good school-life balance.

No. 3: Use the resources available to you

Although on-campus resources may not be as accessible, there are still valuable tools that students should use to enhance their education, as well as their finances. For example, there may be remote work-study jobs, or you may look into other remote job opportunities to help cover costs. And on-campus resources, like academic advisors, career services and professors’ office hours, may still be available online.

No. 4: Leverage savings from on-campus costs

Savings from things like room and board and other living costs can be used to help set you up for financial success, if used well. “If you suddenly have leftover financial aid … you should consider making in-school student loan payments or socking away the extra funds in a high-yield savings account to pay for a future semester,” Pentis said.

No. 5: Be open about adjustment issues

An online education is like working from home – and it can be just as difficult of a transition to make, especially in the time of social distancing. There may be new virtual-learning tools you need to learn, new distractions from living at home, difficulty accessing vital resources — like a solid Wi-Fi connection or a printer — and other unforeseen circumstances that come up.

But talking about those issues is key to moving past them, and it can give you a sense of solidarity. “You’re not the only student trying to adapt to these whirlwind changes,” Pentis said. For those who still find that a distance learning environment isn’t for them, though, taking a gap year could be a possible solution. In that case, be sure to talk to the financial aid office before making any changes.


LendingTree researchers first estimated the total cost of attending school by comparing the cost of room and board, other in-person expenses and in-state tuition for 1,626 schools. Room and board and other-in person expenses were divided by the total cost to estimate the savings from distance learning. Data — for the 2019-2020 academic year — comes from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.


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