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In normal years, senior spring in high school has a certain rhythm to it.
March, college acceptances start rolling in. May 1, decision day. Then, celebrations — prom, the last day of class, graduation.
Every year, like clockwork. Except this one.
For the “class of COVID,” as Anna Parra Jordan has taken to calling her fellow seniors, everything has been upended, including, in many cases, their plans for college.
Like many 18 year olds, Parra Jordan can’t wait to get out of her parents’ house in D.C., move into a dorm, start college. Now, though, she’s not planning to do any of those things in the fall. Instead of starting at the University of Pittsburgh as planned, she’s taking a gap year, something she never considered before.
“I just would really rather not have my freshman year end up like my senior year did,” said Parra Jordan, who is, like students across the country, finishing her high school career online. “That would just be like a one-two punch.”
With so much economic uncertainty, and little clarity as to whether most college campuses will open in the fall, a growing number of high school seniors are rethinking their plans for next year. Some are opting for more affordable, in-state public colleges instead of more expensive private ones. More students are choosing to stay closer to home. Interest in gap years has spiked. And one in six students who had planned to enroll full-time at a four year institution next fall have changed their mind, according to a recent poll from the education consulting firm Art & Science Group. Most for financial reasons.
“I’m not going to pay all that money to maybe end up doing courses online and not be in a class setting,” Parra Jordan said. “Absolutely not. I refuse. If I can prevent that from happening, I’m going to.”
Most colleges and universities are still saying they plan to try to open their campuses in the fall, but just this week, California State University announced that classes at all 23 of its campuses will be online for the first semester of next year. With the country’s top public health officials warning about a possible second wave of the pandemic in the fall or winter, students, parents and many college counselors are expecting more schools will eventually follow Cal State’s lead.
If that happens, college counselors and colleges themselves anticipate more students will likely reevaluate their plans.
“It’s early. We have to wait and see what June, July and August still look like,” said Jeff Fuller, director of college counseling at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory, a boys high school in Houston. “Families are debating is New York or Boston or the West Coast going to be open? What’s my son’s fall learning look like? Is it virtual? Is it face-to-face? So a lot of those are still things that are up in the air. And I still think we could have some families asking for gap years or deferrals in July if a school comes out and says, we’re going to be virtual for the first semester.”
The prospect of fall semester being entirely online is a major consideration for high school seniors across the country, many of whom are still weighing college decisions even though the traditional May 1 deadline has passed. Current college students have been largely dissatisfied with the transition to an online experience — some have asked colleges for refunds, others have sued. Most incoming students say they would expect to pay less if the fall semester is remote, something few colleges have addressed at this point.
“It would almost be a little bit of a blessing in disguise, if they were to just lower the cost and it’s online through fall semester,” said Sage Segura, a high school senior who is still trying to figure out if he can afford his dream school. “It’s almost like I’m given this time, this little free period, to get money before I go.”
Segura, who lives with his grandmother in the Bay Area in California, has always known he wanted to go straight from high school to a four year college. When he toured Loyola Marymount University last fall, he fell in love with the campus. As a dancer, Los Angeles also just feels like the place he wants to be.
But a lot has changed since he applied over the winter. His grandmother, who’s raising him on her own, is a hairdresser, and hasn’t been able to work since mid-March. Because of that, Segura is wondering if it’s worth spending an extra $15,000 a year to go to Loyola Marymount over the University of California, Riverside, where he’d get in-state tuition.
“This is making it a little bit harder for us to figure out how we’re going to pay first year’s tuition,” said Segura, who works at Chick-fil-A to help cover expenses and save up for college. “We’re trying to make it work, but there’s a chance that it won’t.”
He’s trying to appeal his financial aid offer from Loyola Marymount, but if they don’t come back with more money, he’s not sure what to do.
“The price right now is just really difficult,” he said.
Since mid-March, more than 36 million people have lost work, including many who have college-bound kids. With the true unemployment rate likely over 20%, more families than ever are struggling to figure out whether and how they can afford to pay for college, or whether they want to at this particular moment in time.
“Because the information is changing under our feet daily, I think that decision-making is changing daily,” said Lori Chajet, co-director at College Access: Research and Action, or CARA NYC, which works with low-income and first generation students. “I also think people’s lives are changing daily. So I think the idea of the amount of loan debt people were accumulating for college, I don’t see people wanting to stick their neck out for that kind of loan right now.”
College counselors are encouraging students whose parents have lost jobs or had a major change in income because of the pandemic to appeal their financial aid packages. They’re also fielding a lot of questions from anxious students, and more anxious parents.
“High school students and seniors are so flexible about this stuff,” said Sam Bigelow, director of college counseling at Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts. “Frankly, we’re finding that they’re doing pretty well with making decisions. To be honest, it’s more their parents that are struggling a little bit with the big picture.”
A lot of the questions they have are unanswerable at this point: What will the fall semester look like? Will it be in person or online? Will tuition be reduced? Will it be worth it?
“It’s less about, am I going to college? But it’s comparing colleges and saying, what’s the return? Not knowing today if it’s virtual or face-to-face,” Fuller said. “Looking at it from the lens of, should I pay $40,000 or more for this education when there’s a school that’s offering me just as good education but a fraction of the cost? I think those are huge pieces that we spend a lot of time talking about with our families.”
Gabriel Mount, one of Fuller’s students at Strake Jesuit, is thinking a lot about that question of what college is worth, financially. He hasn’t decided yet where he’s going next year, even though the official decision date has come and gone. He’s back and forth between the University of Texas at Austin, where he’d get in-state tuition, and Georgia Tech, which is a little more expensive, but where he’d have more flexibility to change his major from engineering to computer science, which he’s already thinking he might want to do.
Given the state of the economy, and all the uncertainty about the future, though, he feels like cost should probably trump everything else. Even though his mom is still employed, he’s highly attuned to the fact that nothing these days feels guaranteed.
“I think the thing that’s definitely come to the concern of everyone that I know is job security going forward,” Mount said. “We want to be sure that if in the next four years we find that all of a sudden the main source of income is stripped, are we going to be in a position where all of a sudden I’m going to have to take heavy student loans just to be able to afford to go to college?”
Because so much is still in flux, many colleges this year pushed their deadline back to June 1, and those that didn’t have generally been more flexible with students who have asked for extra time to make their decision. Even so, a lot of students are putting down deposits at multiple schools — a practice that is highly discouraged — to keep their options open.
Colleges are well aware that their classes are not nearly as firmed up for the fall as they would be at this point any other year. Many are already turning to their waitlists, earlier than in the past.
“The waitlist activity has been unbelievably vibrant right now, more so than it has been in any year,” Fuller said. “We’ve got institutions that are pulling from the list of students who’ve been denied, and they’re being told, your denial is now a waitlist, or your denial is now an admission.”
Many of the waitlist offers he’s hearing about are coming with a caveat — no financial aid, and often, too, very little time to decide. Mount was initially waitlisted at one of the colleges he was most interested in, Santa Clara University, a private Jesuit school in California.
“They emailed me and said, ‘hey, so you’re in the top pool for our waitlist, but before we accept you, we need to know that if we accept you, you’re going to enroll based on the premise that you won’t receive any scholarships or grants, no financial aid,’” he said.
Bigelow is hearing about that happening a lot, too, and he’s concerned about what it means for students who need financial aid.
“We’re seeing a lot of colleges accepting full pay students. They’re not necessarily going to the waitlist for their financially needy waitlist candidates,” he said. “That inequity already existed, but it’s certainly being exacerbated by colleges’ financial concerns … I think right now, the viability of, for better or for worse, a student that can pay the tuition being able to enroll in the fall gives them an advantage that is pretty unfair.”
Students whose families can afford to pay for college are feeling more solid, generally, in their plans for next year, according to Craig Goebel, a principal at Art & Science Group.
“The higher income students were making their deposits, and relatively confident in their deposits. But the lower income, more first-generation populations, even students of color, were much less likely to be making deposits, and showing much more concern about what even their possibilities were for the fall,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of those traditionally disadvantaged students being impacted the most in negative ways here.”
Another indication that the pandemic may be deterring some high school seniors from going to college next year: as of May 1, about 3% fewer students had completed the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid than this time last year. Without it, families are not eligible for federal financial aid, including Pell Grants and student loans.
Lori Chajet, who works with low-income, first generation college students in New York, is worried, too, about what is going to happen over the next few months. In a typical year, she said, “up to a third of low-income students drop those college plans in the summer.”
Now, with students physically separated from their teachers, friends, and other formal support systems, and with many of their families in precarious financial positions, Chajet expects “summer melt” to be much higher.
“If there is not summer support this summer for those seniors, if they are not able to get that support from their homes,” she said, “I think college-going rates are going to tank.”
A lot depends on what happens in the coming weeks and months.
Gabriel Mount is still holding out hope that he will, at some point soon, be able to tour Georgia Tech, and get a feel for the place, if not the people. He’s also kind of waiting to see what both Georgia Tech and UT Austin’s plans end up being for the fall — if one’s online and the other’s in person, that might sway his choice. If both are online, though, he’s still planning to go.
“I want to get ahead and stay on track,” he said. “Get right into it as quickly as possible, and then just deal with the circumstances that I have as best as I possibly can.”
Sage Segura feels the same. He waffled a bit at first, overwhelmed by all the uncertainty and the cost, with his grandmother unemployed.
“I was like, should I just defer my acceptance? Or should I take a gap year?” he said. “I think I went through at least eight different options with my grandma, and she’s like, ‘what happened? You were just gonna go to college.’ And I was like, ‘you’re right.’ I think I was kind of freaking out about this whole thing, and now I’m kind of settling down a little bit.”
Now, he’s back to trying to decide where to go, instead of whether he should go at all, which feels good. Trying to take the good with the bad. And leaning, most likely, toward sticking with Loyola Marymount, despite the higher cost.
“I’m more on the fence, but my grandma just wants me to go to my dream college. She’s been pushing for it, she wants it for me just as bad as I do,” he said. “I know my counselors and teachers from school also want me to go. It’s been really nice that at least, even though I’m a little unsure, everyone around me is really supportive of me going to where I’ve always wanted to go.”
For Anna Parra Jordan, though, so much of what she’s looking forward to about college is the experience. Getting to be in a dorm, be in classrooms, be on a campus, be part of a community. And she’s convinced that won’t be happening this fall.
So, though she’s beyond ready to move out on her own, she’ll live with her parents a while longer. Spend some quality time with her little brother, who’s only 4. And, hopefully, at some point in the year, get to work or find an internship and travel with her best friend.
“I guess I’m just being hopeful and optimistic that, at least six months from now, we’ll be in a better place and social distancing won’t have to be the norm. But if it is, then I’m just gonna have to roll with the punches. I’d just have a lot of time to figure out who I am, I guess,” she said.
“I’m okay with it because I know I will go to college. I will go, at some point. And that some point will be like within a year. So I can wait a year. I can do that.”
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