For some high school senior, the decision to attend college in the fall has shifted amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Northeastern University was a reach for Henry Huynh. The first-generation student from Boston had already been rejected by many of the colleges he thought he could get into. The few that did accept him he couldn’t afford. Northeastern deferred his application.
So he moved on with his life and made plans to attend a local public college, the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
But on March 14, he noticed an email from the university. At first, he said, he was so nervous he couldn’t open it for hours. When he did, he learned Northeastern had accepted him. Even better, the financial aid package would cover his costs.
“Northeastern pretty much changed my life,” he said.
A year later, the coronavirus changed his life again.
Online classes at Northeastern have been a challenge. When the college canceled in-person classes amid the coronavirus outbreak, he hoped he’d be allowed to stay in his dorm. But students were sent home.
Studying is difficult, he said, when his bed is just a few feet away. On campus, he felt he was learning. Now he feels as if he’s just going through the motions.
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He plans to enroll in the fall semester – he said his financial aid depends on it – but his heart just isn’t in his online studies.
“I am not learning anything online,” he said. “I am just memorizing stuff.”
For first-generation and low-income students like Huynh, the future was often precarious before the coronavirus outbreak. These students average a lower graduation rate than their more financially stable peers. If they drop out, they’re often saddled with thousands of dollars in debt but without the long-term earnings benefits from a college degree to help them pay it off.
For these students, taking a semester or a year off – to work or to wait for a more stable outlook – could mean they never graduate.
Fearing the beginnings of a crisis for at-risk college students, advocates and mentors are pushing them to stay in school.
Ongoing surveys suggest a chunk of students are reconsidering their college plans. Some already have chosen to forgo their college of choice or transfer to an institution closer to home. Others are questioning how they’ll pay for their education as their parents’ employment changes and the national unemployment rate approaches nearly 15%.
Everyone, it seems, is trying to figure out the new landscape at the same time. It will almost certainly be easier for students from families of means to emerge successfully.
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Dario Magana Williams wanted to attend George Mason University to study business. It was far enough from his home in the nation’s capital that he could feel like he was living somewhere new, but not so far that he couldn’t periodically visit his family.
So much has changed for the graduating high school senior.
During the coronavirus outbreak, his family isn’t bringing in as much money as they used to. And despite colleges’ plans to reopen campuses this fall, to Magana Williams it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll return to a physical classroom soon.
His family decided not to risk spending the extra money for online college classes from a well-known school. But he doesn’t want to take a gap year.
“I feel like if I don’t go the first year, I am going to lose everything I had,” he said.
Instead, he’s planning to stay in Washington and attend the University of the District of Columbia.
Working to keep students enrolled in college has become the top concern for advocacy groups like the District of Columbia College Access Program, which has worked with Magana Williams.
High school seniors now want college options that are closer to home and are cheaper, said Tosha Lewis, vice president of the group.
The staff is also helping those students petition their colleges for increased financial aid. Many of their family members have lost their jobs or otherwise have seen their incomes decrease due to economic disruptions caused by the virus.
Reworking a college plan is time-consuming and can be intimidating and confusing, especially for students whose families aren’t used to navigating the world of colleges. Students must reach out to each college individually. And they’ll have to wait weeks before they know if they’ll receive more money. Advocacy groups help coach them.
“Our students aren’t shy about asking for more money, which is a good thing,” Lewis said.
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Making decisions about the fall semester can be even more complicated for students now in college. To start, students say they’re facing an onslaught of doubt that they haven’t really been learning online, despite the debt they’re racking up. Then there are more existential concerns. Some students lacked access to secure housing back home, Lewis said, so being forced to leave the dorms in the middle of the semester proved a problem. Others didn’t have a reliable internet connection at home, which made digital learning even harder.
Those are the same worries expressed by the at-risk high-schoolers and college students who work with Bottom Line, a college advocacy group that works with students in New York City, Chicago and Boston, including Huynh. But of the roughly 1,000 high school seniors the agency is working with, only six so far have said they don’t plan to attend college, said Steve Colón, the executive director.
Students are, however, waiting to commit. Usually by May 1, 90% of Bottom Line’s students have committed to a college. This year, about 3 in 4 had. Many colleges have pushed out their enrollment deadlines beyond May 1, which Colón said is likely playing a role. But students are also apprehensive.
“I think many are nervous about starting in a remote fashion,” Colón said. “Particularly if it’s going to be a college where they have higher out-of-pocket costs.”
He suspects more students will opt for a commuter college, an option that is often cheaper.
Josh Jeremiah, a high school senior in Brooklyn, is one Bottom Line student grappling with cost. The extension of enrollment deadlines has been helpful, but he is still unsure how he would pay for his preferred university, the Rochester Institute of Technology.
As a first-generation student, he was excited about shaking up his life by going to college.
But the financial aid package is unforgiving, he said. His mother earned money by babysitting, but that has dried up during the pandemic. To attend RIT will mean a lot of student loans.
If he decides he can’t afford RIT, Alfred State College, a less-expensive public school, is his option with the most generous financial aid package.
Either way, the prospect of online classes and months more at home is daunting. There are too many distractions, and he misses the movement of the city.
“My home is just the wrong environment to learn in,” he said.
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Métis people ‘We all want more clarity’
It doesn’t help that students have little clarity on what the fall semester will look like. Even universities in the same geographic area have radically different strategies. The California State University system says all of its 23 campuses will stick with virtual instruction for the fall semester.
That includes San Diego State University, whose president, Adela de la Torre, said the institution couldn’t “gamble that testing and treatment will be so substantially improved by August.”
Meanwhile, the University of California at San Diego this month announced its plans to test its students and faculty regularly for the coronavirus. The hope is the program could be expanded from 5,000 undergraduates and graduates to a monthly population of 65,000 students and faculty members.
As families deliberate, they’re asking about the possibility of taking a gap year, or if their deposits will be refundable, said Karen Sieben Backes, the dean of enrollment College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University, a private institution in Minnesota. The concerns are most acute from first-generation or low-income students who’d be coming from out of state.
At Santa Clara University in California, the number of students requesting more financial aid has nearly doubled this year compared with last year, said Eva Blanco Masias, the dean of undergraduate admissions. The requests are coming mostly from low- to middle-income families. So far, the college has been able to redirect some money from students who were admitted but decided not to attend. But there are limits to what the university can do and the questions it can answer.
“We all want more clarity,” Blanco Masias said. “We all want next year to be a positive start and continue to get better for our students. It’s really unfortunate we’re having to live under these conditions.”
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Métis people Reaping the benefits of higher education
William Serrata, president of El Paso Community College in Texas, knows families and students are apprehensive about the fall, and he understands the appeal of a gap year.
Still, he hopes any prospective students headed for his institution avoid it – and not just to boost the school’s revenue. He pointed to a 2011 study of students in the El Paso region. It found that only 1% of students who took time off from their college studies eventually earned a credential.
“I know a lot of people, sometimes they go, ‘You’re only concerned about enrollment,’” he said. “No, I’m concerned about the future of these students. I want them to be able to get a credential to be able to reap the benefits of higher education that I have.”
Serrata is seeing signs of declining student interest. On April 20, summer enrollment was down 20% from normal levels. As of last week, it was down only by 7%, which is encouraging, Serrata said. But the trend is still unusual: Students normally flock to higher education when the economy struggles.
And that’s worrying to Serrata. When the economy does start to recover, the best jobs, he said, will almost certainly go to those with some post-secondary education.
“We certainly understand the post-COVID-19 world will be different,” he said. “But one thing that has rung true throughout is that the more you learn, the more you earn, and the less likely you are to be unemployed.”
Magana Williams, the District of Columbia student, appears to have internalized the value of college. He plans on using his semester at UDC to improve his grades with the hope of receiving more financial aid to attend a college farther away from home. He wants to do right by his family in starting his college education. His parents moved from Mexico to the U.S., and he wants to honor their expectations.
“They didn’t have the same opportunities,” he said. “Going to college is taking advantage of the opportunity they gave me to just be better.”
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
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