High school seniors are wondering if they should still go away to college

The decision about where and whether to go to college is more fraught than ever.

Diego Castillo, a high school senior based in McAllen, Texas, spent months picturing a new life in Boston — he daydreamed of the friends he would meet, the places he would visit and the experiences he would have at his dream school, Boston University.

Yet when Castillo was notified that he had been accepted to BU last month, he didn’t rush to submit his enrollment deposit or procure a school ID and email.

“I had wanted to go to Boston University for a while. I wanted to get out of the state and explore,” Castillo told NBC News. “I was dead-set on it, but then the coronavirus happened and it made me reevaluate.”

As the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. grew, forcing high schools and colleges across the country to pivot to virtual learning, so did Castillo’s doubts about whether he should go away to school, particularly after he became a founding member of Project COVID-Care, a local effort to deliver groceries to elderly, disabled and other vulnerable populations.

“I saw that a lot of people around me were struggling,” Castillo said. “It made me think maybe I can do some good here, maybe I can make an impact on my community. Maybe there’s opportunity here that I didn’t see before.”

Despite his new-found perspective, determining whether to stay local versus venture to Boston wasn’t an easy one for Castillo, who recently committed to The University of Texas Rio Grande Honors College. Castillo said he “spent many nights really thinking” about what he should do.

Diego Castillo decided to attend The University of Texas Rio Grande Honors College after volunteering in his community during the coronavirus outbreak.Courtesy of Diego Castillo

While high school seniors have always had to make difficult decisions about when, where and whether to attend college, these decisions have become more fraught during the coronavirus outbreak as prospective college students attempt to account for circumstances that are beyond their control.

And though many schools have pushed back their May 1 "Decision Day" — which has traditionally been the date when most higher education institutions in the U.S. require applicants to respond to their offers of admission — the additional time hasn't necessarily made things clearer for high school seniors, many of whom have decided to adjust their post-graduation plans by taking gap years, attending schools closer to home, transferring to community colleges to save money or even forgoing college altogether.

According to a recent survey by higher education firm SimpsonScarborough, 20 percent of high schools seniors say they are now likely or highly likely to not attend college in the fall, while about a quarter are reconsidering the schools they originally planned to attend.

Opting for community and technical colleges to save money

Katrina Stevenson, a high school senior who lives in Colorado, learned she was accepted to Colorado State University in December and committed to attending the school in early February. She planned to earn a degree in English education, but the coronavirus made her reconsider her finances and her career path.

"With room, board and tuition, the costs would be more than $20,000 a year for four years," Stevenson said. "My family has already struggled with finances and even though I'd mostly be financing school myself, I didn't want to add to the stress."

Stevenson realized she had "other options" and now plans to attend a local community college while keeping her job at Domino's to save money. She will now study business administration and focus on moving up the ranks at work. After "taking a year or two to gather finances," she plans to enroll in a four-year institution.

"My mom's a bit disappointed. She wanted me to have the life she didn't have and earn a degree, but I'm not giving up and am still planning on going back to college," Stevenson said. "With the economy fluctuating, I want to see how schools start to put themselves back together after this pandemic."

Considering gap years and staying close to home

Jared Battle, a Georgia high school student who wants to study film, is also questioning whether a four-year institution will be worth it, particularly because his field is "creative" and doesn't necessitate a degree.

His family, he said, is pushing him to consider a technical school versus a four-year institution and he's already had to limit his prospects by location, choosing to avoid attending schools in New York City or Los Angeles, cities that have recorded high cases of the coronavirus.

"It just seems like I might have to take a gap year until things get better," Battle said. "My friends who've had to leave colleges because of the coronavirus and had to do their classes online are telling me it's not even worth it to go anymore."

Like Castillo, Jacqueline Caulfield was accepted into her dream program, a dual degree program with Trinity College Dublin and Columbia University, during which students spend two years of their college careers studying at each institution.

Caulfield, who currently resides in North Carolina and holds dual citizenship from Ireland and the United States, planned to major in European history. But with coronavirus-inflicted travel restrictions in place, she isn't sure whether she'll be able to safely go to Ireland in the fall. She's also concerned that if classes migrate online, she would miss out on a semester that she was supposed to spend in Ireland.

"I don't want this coronavirus to turn us into a world where we don't do international travel, but it puts me in a tough position where I want to be safe, but I don't just want to stay here in Raleigh, North Carolina for my whole life," Caulfield said. "I'm in limbo. I just don't really know how the semester is going to work and I always thought I'd never do a gap year but now I'm questioning whether it's a good idea to rush into it, lose time in Ireland and potentially be unsafe."

The program extended its decision deadline to July 1, so as of now, Caulfield plans to wait to see whether the situation changes in the next few months. If she does take a gap year, she hopes to live with her grandparents in the Washington, D.C. metro area and find work there.

Is tuition worth it if you can't be on campus?

Whether virtual courses are worth full tuition payments is also a recurring question among parents and high school seniors, who already got a taste of how challenging distance learning can be when their high schools moved online for their last semesters.

"My parents understandably don't want to pay for tuition if it's going to be online because they don't feel that it's the same experience," Caulfield said. "And schools haven't agreed to make the tuition cheaper, so the thought of paying to sit on a computer at my house made me rethink things."

Virtual courses will be a deciding factor for Gabrielle Almeter from Phoenix, who recently committed to attending New York University. An aspiring journalist, Almeter says if NYU goes virtual for its fall semester, she will take a gap year and work at her father's aquarium supply business.

"It's been a lot to think about. I was really happy to get the news but I'm also scared because there's so much uncertainty. It's just a waiting game, " Almeter said. "My parents and I are putting a lot of money into my education and I don't want to waste their money, so I would definitely take a year off if classes were online."

Gabrielle Almeter plans to attend New York University in the fall, but will take a gap year if classes move online.Courtesy of Gabrielle Almeter

Battle, the Georgia high school student, also says whether schools switch to virtual learning will illuminate what his post-graduation plans will be, particularly because there are many educational tools available for free online.

"I wouldn't pay the same price being on campus as virtual learning. You can learn how to make films on YouTube now," Battle said. "College is more than just a degree. It's about the experience and meeting people."

Seeing new opportunities in your own community

As the rest of the class of 2020 finalizes their post-graduation plans, one student is more than content with the deviation in his master plan.

"Many times I tell people my story outside of McAllen and they were unsure and afraid of where I live because they look at border towns in a certain way and I want to change that perceptive," Castillo said.

"I was failing to see the opportunity in my town and discrediting it. In terms of university, it's not always about the prestige, the big school. It's important for people to reflect and analyze what they truly want out of life and what they are basing their college decisions on."

Plus, the aspiring neurosurgeon adds, he'll have plenty of opportunity to go out of state for medical school and residence, if that's what he wants.