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Coronavirus Pandemic Has College-Bound Students, Parents Rethinking Higher Education Decisions

·9 min read

Colleges and universities across the country made swift moves to protect the health of their campus communities as President Donald Trump declared the novel coronavirus a national emergency. Students, faculty, staff and administration at colleges and universities have been forced to rethink the process of educating students by moving all instruction and non-essential daily operations online. 

“Many reports from the field suggest that most institutions are prioritizing training faculty to offer 100% online instruction and advising while ensuring the student experience does not get too disrupted," says Stephanie Krusemark, director of university relations at Mentor Collective.

"However, a few campuses are opting to think ahead and consider canceling spring graduation ceremonies, which is not sitting well with their future graduates,”

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Uncertainty For Students 

For example, Lycoming College, a private liberal arts college in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, has suspended face-to-face instruction after an extended spring break and will teach using remote formats for the remainder of the semester.

Students at Lycoming can expect to be contacted by their individual course faculty members on or before March 23 for individual course instruction.

“My son is on semesters and was home for spring break when he learned that he wasn't going back. My daughter is on quarters and was supposed to have finals this week, so initially, the university's goal was to complete the quarter with minimal disruptions. That got thrown out the window,” says Ann Garcia, parent of two college students and a financial advisor for Independent Progressive Advisors. 

Pandemic Affects College Decisions, Survey Shows

Families’ fears have heightened due to the COVID-19 outbreak — particularly for prospective parents and students who will be first-year students in the fall of 2020. Families across the country are rethinking their final college decision.

Quatromoney and TuitionFit have teamed up to create a national flash survey to understand how the COVID-19 outbreak could affect college enrollment patterns for high school seniors.

The survey results showed that 25.7% of respondents are rethinking their college choice due to the coronavirus outbreak. Thirty percent of parents are slightly more inclined to rethink their high school senior's college choice.

Students were only 23.6% more likely to change their college decision, and 12.6% of families are considering deferring their acceptance for a year so they can attend their first choice, according to the survey.

National Candidate Reply Date — the day that high school seniors must inform colleges of their intention to enroll or not enroll in a college — is May 1. Many schools have pushed decision day to June 1. 

Despite the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus pandemic, the “normal” pre-COVID-19 fears haven’t diminished, says Gwen Thomas, speaker and author of "The Parent’s Smart Guide to Sending Your Kids to College Without Going Broke.”

“The greatest fear that most parents have about the college search process is the cost. The cost of college is far out of reach for the average students and their families.” 

College Cost Fears 

Thomas says the concerns about college that predated the pandemic, like whether a student will find a job or be in debt, are still the same. Debt.org puts cumulative U.S. student loan debt at $1.4 trillion.

Student loan debt accrues at a rate of $2,858 every second, and the average student debt as of 2017 was $37,172.

Thomas says there’s a new layer now.

“Parents with money in 529 college savings plans are also a little fearful because they have to sell short,” she says.

Many high school seniors have not started to think about the economic impact of layoffs, shortages and lost income from work due to COVID-19, the author says. 

Experts say that families can still take the following steps to address college cost concerns: 

  • Contact the financial aid office at colleges, particularly if families are faced with a disappointing financial aid award.

  • Tap into a financial advisor’s advice if parents are now concerned about retirement funds, a dip in college savings accounts and paying for college. 

  • Ask a trusted tax professional to help understand how to save additional money.

Possible Changes In Retention

Fred Amrein, founding principal of Amrein Financial and College Affordability LLC, says that college retention rates are already low. “Less than 40% of students graduate on time,” he says. 

Sixty percent of students had completed a bachelor’s degree in 2017 at the same institution they started in 2011, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The graduation rate was 60% at public institutions, 66% at private nonprofit institutions and 21% at private for-profit institutions.

“This transparency to the outcome is not always available or reviewed by families when reviewing a college to select,” Amrein says.

COVID-19 could further change the retention trajectory of college students.

“The coronavirus is unique since it impacted the entire globe. What we may see is an increase in students staying closer to home when they commit to a college and maybe an increase in transfers due to the concern it raised for parents and students,” he says. 

Family conversations have already turned this direction, according to the Quatromoney and TuitionFit survey. Here are the three top reasons for reconsidering college decisions:

  • 32.9%  want to be closer to home

  • 28.8% don't want to lose tuition money

  • 21.9% are afraid of getting the coronavirus at a particular college on their original list

College Uncertainty

It's not known how long the pandemic could last, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and this makes for lots of uncertainty for colleges and universities. 

Right now, the National Association of College Admission Counseling is providing an online tool for information about changes in college admission events, deposit dates and more.

“We are still working through our plans and implications related to COVID-19,” says Calvin Wise, director of recruitment for the office of undergraduate admissions at Johns Hopkins University.

Colleges and universities now face budget changes due to the need to ramp up online services and must rethink budget planning for the next academic year due to COVID-19.

Mentor Collective's Krusemark says these decisions are further compounded by higher educational institutions that must also weather decreases in high school graduates and first-time college students, decreases in international student enrollment and the shift in the national acceptance day guidelines made by the National Association of College Admission Counselors.

All of this creates a more competitive marketplace for fewer students.

“This means most colleges and universities are running with smaller operational budgets, forcing innovative and swift strategic thinking to protect the health of their existing student populations while assuring a high-quality online academic experience for new students this summer and fall,” says Krusemark. 

Questions To Ask Colleges 

This financial uncertainty creates concerns for families. Krusemark says parents and students of first-time college students may not be as apt to readily send them outside of their local community, home state or country to attend college this fall unless there are clear answers to what the experience will entail and how their safety will be a top priority.

“Unfortunately, no one knows what next fall will look like at this point, but it presents an opportunity for colleges and universities to reimagine their college experience with the advent of technology."

Prospective parents and students may also be concerned about not being able to visit campuses prior to making a decision.

“My recommendation is, don't go right now — there's nothing to be gained from seeing an empty campus, and no one will give you a tour,” says Independent Progressive Advisors' Garcia.

“Plus, many students who've stayed at college did so because they don't have any place else to go and it's not fair to put them at risk of having brought the virus to them.” 

Garcia says it’s also important to ask specific questions about college communication like the following: 

  • How will a student get home in the case of a family emergency?

  • How has each college reached out to current students? 

  • Do you have a parent social media connection for an incoming college’s parent group? Do parents and students feel supported by the university during this time? Are they getting cost adjustments for housing? 

  • Students should join not just admitted student social media groups, but also try to join current student groups so that they can see what this experience looks like from a student perspective. 

  • What other resources is the school providing, and how easily are they accessed by parents? Parents should review the school's communications about the virus and make sure the measures feel appropriate to them.

  • These should be easy to find on the homepage and easy to understand. Look for transparency, details, ongoing communication, links to resources, specific recommendations, support resources for moving out of residence halls, details for students who stayed and more.

Almost 35% of college students took at least one online class in fall 2018, according to the Department of Education.

Will online learning trump traditional college classes? Krusemark doesn’t think so.

“Students have been leading the demand for more online options to provide greater accessibility, flexibility and lowered costs to obtain their degrees,” she says.

“However, the majority of students that are enrolled in 100% online degree programs still seek to have a physical connection with their college campus. Therefore, while the demand is there, students still desire the physical experience of their college education.”

Gather Answers To Make A Decision

The COVID-19 situation has evolved rapidly and circumstances vary significantly from school to school. While it raises uncertainty, Krusemark says it’s also an opportunity to blend respective communities through social engagement on online learning and video conferencing platforms — and that prospective students and parents should understand that colleges are doing their best to provide a safe learning environment for all students. 

“The spirit of our respective colleges are still alive and well, the way we engage with that spirit has transformed to protect and sustain the overall health of our communities. During this uncertain time, it is more important to strengthen our communities through empathy, patience, time and support. Learning can still happen, even if it looks different for the time being,” says Krusemark.

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