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Coronavirus is changing some high school seniors’ college plans

Some are considering a gap year, a later transfer date, or a college closer to home.

The University of Minnesota campus on April 21 Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via Getty Images

Most high school seniors have resigned themselves to the fact that their senior spring — once full of milestone events like grad night, prom, and graduation — will be spent indoors. For those planning to head off to college in the fall, the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic and what lies beyond summer is a cause for concern.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of college campuses have closed, truncating not just the academic year but also the opportunity for prospective students to tour campus, attend admitted student events, and get an in-person feel for the school. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia have now mandated or recommended the closure of public and private schools. Campus visits are an essential aspect of the decision-making process for many students, including those with the financial means to tour or scholarship recipients who have been flown out by the colleges themselves. Most admissions offices have transitioned to hosting events online, but virtual tours and Zoom sessions can only do so much to acquaint students with a college’s environment.

With National Decision Day around the corner on May 1 — the traditional deadline for most students to accept admissions offers — many students are worried about committing to a campus they haven’t set foot on. About two-thirds of nearly 5,000 high school seniors surveyed by the education marketing firm Carnegie Dartlet found the May deadline to be unreasonable. And although many colleges have extended the deadline to June 1 or later, some students don’t believe an extra few months of deciding time will ultimately make a difference, especially if most of the country is still on lockdown.

“One of the most important things when choosing a college is the campus atmosphere and what the students there are like,” said Rachel Kedem, a senior from Sacramento County, California. Kedem is deciding between UC Santa Cruz, Boston University, and Emerson College, and says “it’s really difficult” since two of her top-choice colleges are in Boston. She’d visited Boston University before and would feel more comfortable committing to the school, she said, “but it’s hard to tell what the right decision for me is at this point.”

Kedem’s family had planned to tour colleges in the spring after she received all her offers and financial aid packages. The virtual tours and webinars have been semi-helpful when it comes to hearing professors and student leaders speak, Kedem said, but she said she was banking on the campus visit to be sure of her decision. “Is the atmosphere more competitive academically? Is there a strong school spirit? Is there a tradition students really care about? These are things I won’t be able to certainly find out unless I go there and talk to current students,” she told me.

Current college students — many of whom acknowledge that their admissions offices are doing the best job they can to aid prospective students — are trying to solve the social disparity Kedem described. Justin Thach, a freshman at Stanford University, had initially created a spreadsheet of current students’ contact information, intended to help high school seniors in the Coca-Cola scholarship program he was part of. Since Thach decided to make the sheet a public resource, however, the document has grown vastly. More than 650 students across hundreds of schools have posted their information for prospective students to reach out, he said.

“I’ve talked to about 10 students so far, and with talking to someone individually, I can give more direct answers to their questions, and they can get a sense of the individual people and how they interact with others on campus,” Thach told me.

He added that he sympathized with the seniors and wanted to create a resource anyone can use, especially to help low-income or first-generation college students. Education experts say some first-generation students struggle with social isolation, due to a lack of family support or the need to work extra hours in college. Therefore, figuring out whether a campus offers sufficient social support is crucial for many.

“It’s just answering questions on our part,” Thach said. “A lot of what I’m doing is dispelling or addressing stereotypes, and I’m trying to address those preconceived notions as best as I can because I know how influential those impressions can be when you’re deciding.”

Already, various universities have considered the possibility that campuses won’t reopen in the fall. In this scenario, many first-year students could enroll in classes without even setting foot on campus until 2021 — something that’s led students of all ages to reassess their finances and plans for the coming year. On social media, some students are actively considering a gap year — a privilege that’s usually associated with people from more affluent backgrounds, since many colleges don’t offer financial aid for the period out of school. While studies have found that a gap year or time off from school decreases the likelihood of college completion, some students might not have a choice in delaying college, especially if their finances have been upended by Covid-19.

About 70 percent of 1,100 students surveyed by the ed-tech company Cirkled In said Covid-19 will likely affect their financial situation, and more than 25 percent said it’ll affect their ultimate college choice. Many families are rethinking whether their children should even start college in 2020, or if they should enroll in a school closer to home to reduce costs.

Andrea Boyack, the mother of a high school senior in Kansas, told me her son is leaning toward taking a semi-gap year, in which he would take a few online classes at a local community or state college and transfer to his first-choice campus in 2021. Boyack’s son has Asperger’s syndrome, and “getting information about support for students with special needs has been very difficult” with virtual webinars, she said. The family had planned to tour campuses before deciding on the best fit, but that might have to be pushed to next year.

“It was a big development when he finally agreed to the possibility of taking a gap year, since he was really looking forward to going to college,” Boyack said. However, Boyack and her son ultimately decided there was too much uncertainty and risk to getting him settled in a different state, only to have him potentially relocate home. Even if campuses did remain closed, Boyack said it didn’t make sense to pay the same amount of tuition for online courses when there are other cost-effective options nearby. Institutions, from Ivy League schools to community colleges, are already projecting losses of more than $100 million and bracing for more revenue decline in the fall, if enrollment numbers are down.

“Yeah, I just don’t know if I’m down to pay over $42,000 for Zoom classes,” one student tweeted. In anecdotes posted online and in national surveys, students say they prefer in-person learning, and the likelihood of starting fall semester online has led some seniors to consider a gap year or, for returning college students, a leave of absence.

“I know two students who’ve taken a leave of absence during spring quarter out of financial concerns,” Thach said. “The people I’ve talked to, some are concerned about paying full tuition when we just have online classes. They’re approaching fall quarter the same way and might consider taking a leave of absence.”

High school graduates from lower-income backgrounds are more likely to delay their college enrollment than their wealthier peers, according to multiple studies. They also experience longer breaks in their education and are less likely to graduate. Due to many families’ precarious financial situation, low-income students are significantly at risk with the pandemic-induced recession — particularly if they don’t have enough money for an enrollment deposit or if their family’s financial picture entirely changes.

The pandemic not only disrupts many students’ educational trajectory but also exacerbates existing barriers to access, such as college advisement resources and technology to study from home. Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy for the National College Attainment Network, told Politico that “the longer [students] are out of school, the more dire the impact is going to be.

“The biggest concern is that you might have students who weren’t previously low income, who now are,” Warick said. “Not only are they facing that loss of income, but if they’ve already done their FAFSA, they now need to contact the financial aid office to let them know there’s been a change and ask for an updated financial aid package.”

Diane Klein, a law professor at the University of La Verne, published a blog post on Medium advising parents and students of all income levels to consider taking a gap year if they can. “The upheaval most people are experiencing right now is incredibly difficult, and any honest educator has to admit those are the worst possible conditions to try and carry out education, especially for those making the transition to college,” she told me.

Even if campuses do open up by August or September, Klein said parents should plan for the possibility that a second coronavirus outbreak could occur in the fall, especially if there isn’t a vaccine by then.

“For people to go into debt, move their kids into a dorm or apartment hundreds of miles away, and find out a few weeks or months later that they have to go home again, that’s an unreasonable demand,” she told me. While some students’ enrollment decisions are contingent on their financial aid package, Klein thinks it’s not too soon to ask to see whether a student could defer a semester or two to get the full experience they’ve signed up for: “Many of these students have worked so hard, and I want them to get a full-value higher education — whether they’re paying for it, borrowing for it, or recipients for a lot of aid.”

Some high school seniors feel like they’re stuck at a crossroads. Many can’t afford a gap year in a struggling job market and feel constrained by the choices they have to make in quarantine — a reality that has only begun to sink in. College, for some students, is a four-year commitment, and like many other students, Kedem is stressed about such a big decision. “I have to weigh my options as best as I can,” she said, “and a part of me is really worried I might make a decision I’ll later regret.”