College-bound during coronavirus: Should high school seniors rethink their options?

Prospective students need to consider more than the obvious factors amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
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By Madeline Merinuk

Ask high school seniors what’s on their minds as summer draws nearer and, chances are, most will say college. The milestone often introduces logistical challenges and a wave of emotions as prospective students navigate a new phase of independence. Now, add on the pressure of a global pandemic.

Andrea Peña said that colleges' administrative decisions during the coronavirus pandemic didn’t have a direct impact on her school choice because the educational and financial aspects of committing to college were more important factors.Photo courtesy of Andrea Peña

Young adults currently looking to commit to college find themselves in a highly unusual situation. “Now that we have COVID-19, some students can’t travel to visit schools that they are choosing between, and some summer sessions are at risk of being canceled,” Andrea Peña, a 17-year-old high school senior from Parkland, Florida, told TODAY.

And it's not only school tours that are missing; many students can no longer meet admissions counselors face to face. And what’s more, no one is truly sure whether the fall 2020 semester will take place in person.

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“Every decision the school makes certainly has an impact on the decision I make,” said Colin McLoone.Photo courtesy of Colin McLoone

“I heavily depended on my second visits to help me make my decision, and now I just don’t have that choice,” Colin McLoone, a 17-year-old senior from Brookfield, Connecticut, told TODAY.

With so much uncertainty looming, TODAY talked to some experts to see if there are any special factors that high school seniors should be considering during this hectic time.

What should students do before making a college decision during the coronavirus outbreak?

“All colleges are in triage mode right now," said Dani Babb, CEO and Founder of The Babb Group, an online educational resource for professors. "I know that college presidents are working in collaboration to try to figure out what to do collectively."

1. Look at colleges' health services — both physical and mental.

A school’s on-campus health system is often overlooked, says Kathleen E.R. Murphy, strengths coach and advisory board member at the University of Maine Business School. “Both the physical and mental health support facilities on campus are important, particularly in this time period,” she said. Since many college students struggle with mental health, make sure the school you're committing to is providing the services to help students with any mental or physical health care concern, she advised.

2. Reach out to current students and faculty.

“I think it's important for the kids to be proactive and to reach out to the schools that maybe they haven't heard from yet, either on social media or call them because I know that there are a lot of people that are available at the colleges,” said Murphy.

Miles Diviert was fortunate to see all of his top college options in person before the pandemic arrived in America. Photo courtesy of Miles Diviert

Babb suggests high school seniors reach out to current students at the college as well. “I think it is really helpful for prospective students to get online and talk with current students to get a feel for the school climate and the overall environment.”

Miles Diviert, an 18-year-old high school senior from Sandy Hook, Connecticut, said that college admission counselors have been incredibly communicative. “Admission counselors have been amazing during this process," he said. "I felt that there was more information available to me then there would be at an accepted students' day."

3. Press admissions for financial help.

Colin McLoone, the student from Brookfield, Connecticut, told TODAY that the decisions colleges are now making — particularly the way they address students' financial aid requests — have an impact on which school he chooses to attend. “This completely changes the financial outlook toward certain schools that maybe were affordable enough before, but might not be now,” he said.

“A lot of students were accepted to schools under certain financial conditions, but now that some students have parents whose income may have changed drastically, students should definitely be asking schools how they are going to help them financially,” Babb said. She explained that many admissions advisers have the ability, usually at their discretion, to alter a student’s financial aid. “It might be worth it for a student to go to a college and say, ‘Hey, I’m considering you, but I have a better offer from this college. I need you to bring the tuition down,’” said Babb.

Should you consider a gap year instead of committing to college?

For students looking to get the full on-campus experience during this uncertain time, it's worth considering waiting a semester, or even a year, before entering higher education. A gap year — popular in Europe — is a great way to gain perspective and develop occupational skills. (Malia Obama put a spotlight on the trend back in 2016, when she deferred enrollment to Harvard University.)

“Some colleges are prepared to answer these contingency-based questions and others are not, and I think that’s something students should be paying attention to,” Babb told TODAY. But, this may not matter to students who are primarily focused on their studies and care less about the social aspect of college.

Regardless, if you don’t want to be going to college during this uncertain time, you shouldn’t feel like you have to. “You shouldn't go to school because somebody else says you should be going,” said Murphy.

What are colleges doing for current and prospective students?

With all of the havoc caused by this pandemic, colleges are taking more preventive measures than ever to protect their current and incoming students. Students across the nation are now attending “Zoom University,” as many have dubbed it, and admissions teams are also providing new online resources for prospective students. Though with growing scrutiny over Zoom's privacy and security issues — including "Zoombombing," where strangers crash meetings they weren't invited to — there's no telling how long Zoom classes will last.

Many colleges are relaxing their deadlines for application and test scores. The University of California school system, in particular, is suspending all test score requirements and says that no acceptances will be rescinded if a student cannot meet final transcript deadlines. “The University’s flexibility at this crucial time will ensure prospective students aiming for UC get a full and fair shot — no matter their current challenges," University of California President Janet Napolitano said in a statement.

A representative from the CUNY school system told TODAY that many of their schools are taking measures to help their incoming students as well. Hunter College is holding live Q&A sessions on its Instagram account in which students can have their questions answered live; it also invited admitted students to join an app where they can talk with current students to learn more about what it's like to be a student at Hunter. CUNY as a whole has offered flexible commitment and deposit deadlines for their students.

The University of North Carolina is offering a variety of virtual sessions for incoming students. A representative from the UNC media relations team told TODAY that they are holding Zoom presentations to educate students about on-campus resources, as well as planning to launch an online social community where incoming students will be able to directly communicate with their new classmates online.

SUNY is also making efforts to give their students online opportunities, including virtual tours and learning sessions, and has extended deadlines to give students more opportunity to consider their options. "We all have to think much more creatively in order to retain our students and attract others," SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson told TODAY.