We are living in uncertain times. Much is unknown in the face of this global pandemic—from the most trivial questions like when it will be possible to get a haircut, to the direst concerns about lost jobs or food insecurity. Even what we thought we could control has fallen prey to unpredictability. Many college-bound high school seniors are already wrestling with a significant time of transition as they decide which school to attend, and how they will afford it. They are wondering which school will be the best match for their interests, finances, goals, and future, and they are trying to determine what kind of experience they want to have.
In a normal year, May 1
is the National Candidate Reply Date
, the day that colleges and universities have agreed upon for newly admitted students to choose the college in which they will enroll. This is not a normal year, and a significant number of colleges have changed this deadline to June 1st
. Some students locked in their college decision late last year with early applications, and others continue to weigh their options. Regardless of when students settle on the college they wish to attend, for many, there are lingering questions. “What will school look like in the fall?“ “Will learning still be conducted virtually?“ “Will campuses be open?“ “Should I defer the start of my college education for a year?“
What will college look like in the fall?
The answers to most of these questions are largely out of a student's control. In fact, most colleges and universities are still in “wait and see” mode in terms of what the fall semester and beyond will look like at their schools
. Uncertainty still rules the day, and likely will well into the summer. The headlines have been full of opinions
, speculation, and statements of intent
by a wide range of institutions. Last week news spread that Boston University was considering postponing the fall semester
, and soon many in the public falsely believed that a definitive decision had been made to close the inner city Massachusetts campus this fall, due to the growing impact of the virus there. In truth, any college or university not having conversations about contingency plans for the fall at best has their head in the sand, and at worst is negligent during a public health crisis. BU has since made it clear
that their plan is to resume on-campus programs unless the authorities limit their ability to do so. Nearby in Cambridge, Harvard University announced earlier this week
that the institution will reopen in the fall while leaving open the possibility of a virtual start. Just outside Boston, Wheaton College plans to start on-campus
in the fall, ideally with the first day of classes on September 1st. Meanwhile, some schools, like Cal State Fullerton have already decided to begin classes online in the fall
. The coming months will be a rollercoaster of news about campus plans for reopening in the fall, or like Southern New Hampshire University, re-imagining
the delivery of higher education. What seems clear is that, no matter what, the student experience at most colleges will look different than it did for past students.
What will students do?
What does this all mean for newly admitted students and their lingering concerns? A number of recent surveys have projected that COVID-19 will significantly impact students’ college plans
. While predictions range from anywhere between 10 - 40% of families changing plans because of the pandemic, many colleges and universities have yet to experience this. John Barnhill, the associate vice president for enrollment management at Florida State University (FSU) says, “to be honest, we are not seeing an increase in students requesting deferrals at this time.” Brian Zucker is the President and Founder of Human Capital Research Corporation
, a private education research firm in Evanston, Illinois that consults colleges and universities on “enrollment management, market development, curriculum innovation, pricing policy, sustainability planning, and long-term outcomes assessment.” He cautions families against drawing conclusions prematurely about student plans for the fall—particularly when those decisions have been driven or influenced by what we are seeing in the media. Zucker says that the “relentless stream of survey results about fall enrollments, in too many instances, are based on limited sample size and/or flawed analysis.” Based on a well-established body of evidence, Zucker argues that “we could ask students about their college plans, return to those same students three weeks hence with the identical questions and get different answers.” He points out that, “everyone wants to return to normalcy, both schools and kids, so the motivations haven’t changed, only the ways that we will have to go about this, which in no small part means letting go of many of the long-standing rituals and practices of admissions and enrollment.”
For some graduating seniors, the decision to attend college in the fall may be dependent on family finances, health, and other circumstances unique to their situation and beyond their control. It could be that the impact of this global pandemic is such that sadly their plans for a college degree have been sidelined, at least temporarily. Other families wonder about the possibility that the college in which their student plans to enroll might be facing demise
as some predict
. For the students who are fortunate enough not to be impacted in these ways, there are two approaches: defer or defy. Either they postpone attending college for a year, or they refuse to fall prey to yet another repercussion of this crisis and embrace the uncertainty of the year ahead.
In past years, a growing number of students have taken a gap year after high school for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is to better understand themselves and their hopes for the future, to earn money for college, care for a loved one, grow academically, or improve athletically. There are also students who are simply burnt out by the grind and need a year to regroup and reassess. In the past, recent graduates have worked, traveled, trained, volunteered, researched, and/or studied. Colorado College has a Gap Year Research Consortium
with articles, resources, and research dedicated to exploring outcomes and sharing information about these opportunities. A gap year is largely an opportunity of privilege, and for those who were already considering this option, perhaps deferring college for a year is still the right choice, if permitted by their college. For others, suddenly their plans for the year may have been scrapped because of travel restrictions or lost opportunities to work or intern. In that case, college in the fall might seem like the better path.
Colleges and universities have different policies regarding deferrals and some schools have been, or will be, adapting these policies as a result of COVID-19, especially if there is an increase in requests. Many colleges require that a student first submit an enrollment deposit before considering a deferral request, others simply don’t allow students to defer or might cap the number of students permitted to take this path. If a college prohibits deferrals, a student would have to decide whether to attend, or take a year off and reapply for admission next year with no guarantee of being readmitted.
Jody Sanford Sweeney is the associate director of college counseling at William Penn Charter School, a pre-K to 12, Quaker day school in Philadelphia (the 5th oldest school in America). She says that given the pandemic, students planning to defer a year “will need to think creatively about their time away from school. They may have to consider staying home with their parents; volunteering in their community at food banks, environmental organizations, churches; supporting elderly neighbors, family, and friends; creating a small business that involves the outdoors (gardening, landscaping); or tapping into their creative talents—for instance building an art studio to work on drawing, painting, or setting up a woodshop for woodworking. It could be learning to sew, trying a new instrument, studying a foreign language, building a computer.” Sweeney adds that as businesses, schools, government offices, and courts reopen, students may be able to find an internship, but that “it may be more difficult to find a paying job to earn money, and especially challenging to travel abroad.” She says “at the very least, if the student considers deferring, they need to be thoughtful about their time and spend it well.”
In many ways, choosing a college is a leap of faith. Despite any illusion of control, there is no guarantee that it will be right, or that the experience will be exactly what one expects. This pandemic has been a potentially valuable—if unwelcome—lesson on the impermanence and uncertainty of life. Students should consider engaging with what is known right now, and in the weeks to come. They might ask themselves if they will regret delaying college for a year if, next fall, some other crisis strikes, and plans must change again. Instead, if finances and family circumstances still allow, a better approach might be to lean in and stay the course. Whitney Soule is the senior vice president and dean of admissions and student aid at Bowdoin College. She recently wrote a thoughtful letter to newly admitted students
that is a compelling argument for this approach, embracing what is constant about the college community you have chosen, and the experience you will ultimately have there. Soule also says that “it makes sense that students would look to the near future when they hoped to start a particular kind of college experience, feel anxiety that it might not be what they wanted, and pivot to a safety net of deferring until everything is normal.” However, she points out that, “the disruption of COVID-19 is pervasive and it may take some time, even if we are back to on-campus learning before we are not living in immediate response to the virus. She adds, “colleges are working around the clock to prepare for a variety of scenarios, and all of those scenarios are centered on what the experience means for our students. Even recognizing that there might be disappointment in a college start that might not be the one students imagine, getting going is still getting into it—getting into the stuff of college—big ideas, great faculty, and classmates chosen for their interests, talents, and personalities.”
Amy Cembor, the senior associate dean of admission at Providence College agrees. She says that “thinking about deferring for a year or even a semester brings up a lot of questions for students who weren’t considering this before: What will you do with your time? Will you regret being “behind” your peers later? Will you take courses online at a local community college or state school, and will those transfer into your college of choice? Is there a cap on the number of credits you can take and transfer in? What happens to your scholarship and financial aid—do you need to reapply for both or just the need-based aid? Can you defer for a whole year or just a semester? Are you running toward an opportunity or away from the unknown?”
Andy Strickler, dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College sums it up well. In the unfortunate event that health restrictions prevent colleges from opening in the fall, he rhetorically asks, if your options are, “A. sit at home on the couch without the ability to do much, or B. sit on the couch working on your degree as part of a supportive college community with a cohort of peers who are all in this together, what makes the most sense?”
Life is full of questions
This health crisis has many of us thinking about what we are putting off in life. The very real threat of falling ill, or losing jobs or loved ones tends to bring a sense of perspective that we might not have had as we moved methodically through our days. So many questions exist for us all, and certainly for soon to be high school graduates. Hopefully, those considering a college degree have already asked themselves WHY
they want to continue their education and WHAT they hope to get out of it. This pandemic invites them to return to these questions and react with intention accordingly. FSU’s Barnhill says “my advice to students at this point would be to seriously consider how they would feel about not being on campus in the fall, or being on campus in some kind of social distance mode. They are the only ones who know if they can handle it academically and/or personally.” He says, “call me an optimist, but I believe most students can, and will, adjust to this new normal. We are all more resilient than we think.” He adds, “I just wish we weren’t forced to practice resilience so often, but practice does make perfect!” Regardless of which path you choose—defer or defy—there will be questions and unknowns. Trust yourself to make the right choice for you and then make the best of it.
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
for The Washington Post