Should 2020 High School Seniors Commit to College During Pandemic?

Typically each Spring, high school seniors respond back to colleges letting them know if they plan to attend in the Fall. But 2020 isn’t a typical year. In light of the pandemic, many colleges have extended their acceptance deadlines, waived deposit requirements, and have offered more spots to students on wait lists.

Colleges are facing big drops in enrollment and lost revenue due to the pandemic. Many liberal arts colleges had already been struggling in recent years to meet enrollment goals due to rising tuition costs, concerns about student debt and a shrinking population of young people. These new losses due to the coronavirus crisis could impact whether or not some colleges will be able to survive the pandemic at all.

Meanwhile, students are facing uncertainty about whether college campuses will reopen, and they are worried about new economic hardships, health fears, and their family’s employment status. Three recent surveys conducted in April reflect students’ shift in plans as a result. One study suggested that 1 in 6 students already changed their college plans as a result of the current health crisis. Another conducted by the Strada Education Network showed that 11% of students had canceled their education plans since the coronavirus outbreak. A survey by the Art & Science Group discovered that 40% of prospective students had yet to submit a deposit to any college. College decisions have become much more stressful during the coronavirus outbreak as prospective college students attempt to account for circumstances that are beyond their control.

How Student Plans Are Evolving

High school seniors are facing so many new circumstances:

  • Financial worries. Some students are facing very different financial situations in the last couple of months. Savings for college might have been lost in the stock market plummet. Summer jobs that were expected to help fun college might not happen with businesses closed or reduced in capacity. Parents might be newly unemployed. Debt may not look as appealing in an uncertain future and job market. Students with these financial worries are considering their alternatives. Some prospective college students are dropping their first-choice schools in favor of colleges that have lower tuition costs. Others are thinking about going part-time, or taking a gap year, so they can work to help their families when a parent is newly unemployed. Some students no longer feel that college is an option for them at all.
  • Health fears. Some students are worried about their health or the health of their family. Some want to stay at home to avoid exposure in dorms, so they are switching to online or community colleges. Others want to attend college, but would rather be closer to home – either to avoid flying or just to be near family if someone’s health goes downhill. Some students’ first choice colleges are in current coronavirus hotspots so now they are considering more rural colleges.
  • Frustration with online classes. Many students don’t feel that online classes are worth big tuitions. They believe they are not just paying for classes, but for the entire college experience, including campus life. These students feel that if they are going to have to take online classes, they might as well attend an online school or community college for a couple of years to save money and/or stay home.


What Students Should Consider

These are unprecedented times, and there are no “right or wrong” answers. With no way to predict the future, students must weigh their options and make the choice that feels best to them. Encourage students to make a list of pros and cons for each option they are considering so that they can more clearly see their choices. In addition, make sure they think through these issues:

Unknown future. None of us can predict what will happen in the next few months. It’s possible that college campuses will open in the Fall and everything will run smoothly. It’s also possible that they might open and then have to shut down again in the middle of the semester. Students need to consider that they will have to remain flexible as we all deal with the unknown. If that uncertainty feels too overwhelming for your teen, perhaps they should choose to enroll in an online university for the next year so that they can be more confident of what the next year will look like for them.

Financial problems. A lot of Americans are struggling financially right now. Many have lost their jobs or lost savings in the stock market. Taking on debt right now might feel a lot more stressful. Paying for college might look different than it did when students originally applied for financial aid. Students need to consider that they can appeal the financial aid they have been offered. The application form for federal student aid, known as the FAFSA, relies on tax data from two years ago (so 2020 seniors are offered aid based on their family’s 2018 tax return). Families who have experienced a recent drop in income or assets should contact their student’s schools to file a change in circumstance and ask for financial aid to be recalculated. You will need to show documentation of how your finances have changed, and policies and ability to award aid will vary from school to school, but students should at least explore this option before deciding college is no longer an option for them.

Gap year. Many students are considering taking a gap year in the hopes that the pandemic will be over in 2021. However, there are several things that students should know before going this route. Most of the time, colleges allow gap years because students fill them with experiences that help them grow as a person, such as traveling around the world or doing mission work. But a gap year in 2020 wont’s allow any of those experiences. In addition, many students are considering a gap year to try to work to earn some money for college or for their families, but the unemployment in this country is significant and there is a good chance they will not be able to find work. Additionally, if your student was lucky enough to earn any scholarships, they will lose that aid. Finally, studies and research consistently show that a gap year or time off from school significantly decreases the likelihood of college completion.

Technical School. College is not a good option for every student, and online distance learning can be challenging for even the most dedicated pupil. Some teens would enjoy, and perform better at, a technical school instead of a university, especially at this time. As many as two-thirds of U.S. companies across multiple industries report difficulties finding qualified applicants for technical positions, with the biggest gaps in technology, manufacturing, and healthcare sectors. Many of the skills most needed by corporations are technical skills which can be obtained through technical schools, which provides students a significant cost savings alternative to college.

Community college. Even before the COVID crisis, the debt load that many students are required to take on to attend a 4-year institution have persuaded some to attend community college for a couple of years before transferring to their college of choice. Now that the pandemic is causing so many campuses to close and create online classes, some students feel that community college is even more appealing. The benefits of attending community college are reduced tuition, no room and board, and closer proximity to home during this uncertain time. However, it’s important that students pay close attention to the courses they take. Not all 4-year institutions will accept credit for all coursework at a community college. If your student is considering this option, have them determine which courses they plan to take and then call the admissions office of the 4-year institution of their choice to find out which courses will be accepted in a transfer.

Online college. In the last few years, improvements in technology brought about the possibility of obtaining an online college education. Some students are wondering if they should simply enroll in an online college since they are already prepared for online coursework instead of enrolling in a traditional 4-year institution that might be struggling to convert their classes to an online format. There are pros and cons to attending online college that students should consider. On the positive, an online college is cheaper, offers a lot of flexibility and options, allows the possibility of completing the program faster, and builds a student’s writing skills. On the negative, an online college requires a participant to have the right technology and be a motivated and self-directed student. Online colleges don’t provide the campus life experience or allow much face time with professors or peers. In addition, some employers consider online schools less reputable or lower caliber than a brick-and-mortar school. Finally, there are online education scams, so it’s important you do a thorough college search to determine the college’s graduation rate, if the college is accredited, and whether it has good or poor reviews.

Staying close to home. Due to the pandemic, families are wary of travel, worried that a family member could get sick and need help, and fear that another wave of the virus will hit in the Fall closing campuses again. These unknowns make local colleges feel safer for parents and/or students. Students should consider how much additional stress and anxiety they would feel adjusting to college during the pandemic.

Call the admissions office. With colleges facing declining enrollment and revenue, they are really eager to secure your commitment. As a result, colleges are being more student-friendly than ever and are offering sweeteners to get students to enroll. Families should advocate for themselves. Tell the admissions office what you need, and you might be surprised what they can offer. In addition, here are some specific things you can ask the admissions officer for:

  • an extension if the college hasn’t changed its deadline for accepting their enrollment offer
  • an opportunity to speak to a currently enrolled student to ask questions about campus life
  • an appeal of your financial aid if your financial circumstances have significantly changed from your 2018 tax return


Final Thoughts…

The pandemic has turned what is already a difficult decision into an extremely stressful choice. Help your teen consider their options and weigh pros and cons. Remind them that the pandemic will eventually pass and that they need to make choices for their long-term future. Ask them what they really want to do as a future career and take steps that will put them on the path to that vision. Finally, remember that education is typically considered a good option when economies weaken, because it’s the perfect time to strengthen skill sets and learn and prepare yourself for when the economy gets stronger and things start to boom again.

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