38% of college students worry they won't have enough money to last the semester

Jacob Vanderwoude is worried pretty much all the time these days. About Covid-19 affecting his health. About remote classes affecting his grades. About being able to continue affording college. 

A sophomore studying computer engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Vanderwoude tells CNBC Make It that all of his classes are fully remote this semester. And although he lives on campus to ensure a quiet environment, remote learning is proving to be a challenge, Vanderwoude says.

"I feel like I'm getting a much lower quality of an education. In general, it's just so much harder to focus," Vanderwoude says. "Sitting in front of the screen for two hours straight, it's hard to not space out for five minutes. And then if you do, you're lost for the rest of the lecture."

On top of that, Vanderwoude says he's barely able to cover all of his expenses, including his $1,000-per-month rent, books and food. "I'm struggling to make ends meet. I quickly drained my savings and now I'm just taking it month by month," Vanderwoude says, adding that he doesn't come from a wealthy background, so he's mostly been able to afford college based on a generous financial aid package, his savings and part-time work.

Vanderwoude isn't alone in his struggle to make it all balance out. About 38% of current college students are worried they won't have enough money to cover their school expenses through the end of the semester, according to a new survey of over 7,000 students nationwide fielded by AIG Retirement Services and EVERFI last month. And 40% of students surveyed say they wouldn't be able to afford a major unexpected expense, such as a car repair or medical bill.

That squares with previous research released in June by OneClass, which found that 56% of current college freshmen, sophomores and juniors say they can no longer afford tuition due to Covid-19. 

To supplement his financial aid, Vanderwoude balances schoolwork with a job at a local Chipotle. He works 20 to 30 hours a week and makes almost $11 an hour at the grill station. It's not enough, yet Vanderwoude worries that taking on more hours would negatively affect his academic performance and endanger his merit-based aid. 

Student loans are not an option either, Vanderwoude says. He would need a cosigner, but his family is currently unable to help.

"My only option was to get a credit card and build my own credit and then hope for the best — pick up a couple of extra shifts at work and try to go off of that," he says.

Covid-19 is putting pressure on students

Even students who are not worried about tuition this year have concerns about keeping their current funding in place for next year.

"Although I am not specifically worried about not having enough support to cover my expenses for the rest of the semester, I think my biggest worry is somehow losing that support," says George Montano, a sophomore at Arizona State University studying mechanical engineering. 

"Covid-19 has made it far more difficult to perform well in classes and although I am making an effort to try to alleviate my academic workload, all of my scholarships have GPA and credit requirements that I must meet," Montano tells CNBC Make It.

The first in his family to attend college, Montano's academic expenses, including tuition, are currently being covered entirely by scholarships and grants. He doesn't have any student loans, although that may change if he needs to make up credits by taking summer classes.

"I plan on continuing to apply for more scholarships, but it is also very obvious that in general, the student body is more concerned about their expenses. This concern has resulted in scholarships becoming more competitive," Montano says. 

Part of the increased competition for scholarships may stem from the fact that many Americans overall are struggling financially amid the pandemic. In fact, 32% of students report that the pandemic has placed extra financial stress on their family, according to AIG's survey.

That parental support makes a big impact for many students. On average, parents covered 44% of the total cost of their children's college this year, according to the latest How America Pays for College report from Sallie Mae and Ipsos. 

Still, many families and students remain optimistic about getting through the financial challenges. Just over two-thirds of families surveyed by Sallie Mae say that while the current situation concerns them, they believe it will not have an impact on their child's education in the long run. And 78% of families say their college students will be enrolled in college next year and plan to continue at the same school. 

Of the students surveyed by AIG, just 5% say they considered transferring schools and only 10% have given any thought to suspending or delaying their studies until they could return to in-person classes.

To make up for any shortfalls, 23% of college students have considered or already applied for additional scholarships and grants, according to AIG's survey. About 1 in 5 students have also contemplated or already taken on an extra part-time or full-time job to help pay for college. 

"Even in the normal time period, the process of deciding to go to college, where to go to college, how to prepare for post-college requires significant planning," says Rob Scheinerman, chief executive officer of AIG Retirement Services. It's not surprising to see the levels of anxiety, the concerns and the potential financial stress that people are experiencing, he adds.

Yet Scheinerman says it's incredibly heartening to see the positive ways college students are facing the adversity, even beyond looking for alternative scholarships and getting jobs. Compared to last year, higher percentages of students say they're keeping their spending in check, checking their bank balances regularly and paying more than the minimum on their credit cards, AIG's survey found.

"Despite the toll the pandemic has taken on their well-being, college students have proven to be resilient in the face of hardship," Scheinerman says.

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