Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Grads Must Decide: Start College, Switch Schools or Delay?

In the before times, decision day -- typically May 1 -- was when high school seniors committed to their colleges and paid deposits. Now, the decision at hand is far bigger: Should students even start, or return to, college in the fall?

Institutions realize that families are grappling with difficult decisions pitted with unknowns because of the coronavirus pandemic, such as whether fall semesters will be delayed, conducted entirely online or held in person, with restrictions. Several colleges have delayed their decision deadline to June 1. But it will take more than pushing back deadlines to make sure students don’t permanently fall off the higher education track.

Four-year colleges may face a loss of up to 20% in fall enrollment, according to an analysis by SimpsonScarborough, a higher education research and marketing company. The Melching family in Ballwin, Missouri, will be part of that exodus. Lisa Melching said her son, Jack, was accepted to Southeast Missouri State University, but then her husband, a pilot and flight instructor, lost his job of 20 years on April 1. Given the family’s dramatically changed financial situation, her son decided to forgo studying wildlife biology at SEMO, and will attend community college in the fall.

It’s not just first-year students rethinking things, either. Madison Savedra, a junior at Loyola University Chicago from Kansas City, Missouri, said that if her university opts for online learning in the fall, she might take a semester off or drop to part-time status to save money.

“I don’t know if taking a semester off would hurt my chances of getting a job or going to grad school,” Savedra said.

While the death toll from the pandemic for young adults has been low compared to older demographics, those in their late teens and early 20s are facing consequences that could alter the trajectory of their lives. Meanwhile, college students have been excluded from government interventions meant to blunt the blow of the pandemic: They are not eligible for food relief like schoolchildren getting free meals, nor did they receive a stimulus check.

Ronne Patrick Turner, vice provost for admissions and financial aid at Washington University, said it’s critical for students to communicate with their universities’ financial aid offices as soon as possible. Students can provide additional documentation about changes that might make them eligible for more funding, she said. She cautions students who are considering taking a deferral or gap year to check with their schools to find out the specific conditions for holding a spot. At Wash U., a deferral requires university approval, and the student may not enroll in a degree-seeking program elsewhere during that time, she said.

Community colleges, which offer rolling admissions, are also trying to plan for the fall. Dr. Andrew Langrehr, vice chancellor for academic affairs at St. Louis Community College, said while they are building a schedule around lower enrollment expectations, they are creating extra capacity behind the scenes in case of a late-breaking influx of students. Currently, their enrollment for the fall is down about 18% compared to this point last year.

“I wouldn’t advise my students to pay a lot more for an experience where you’re not going to be setting a foot on campus,” he said. Several parents and students echoed that sentiment: If college is online-only, students will miss out on science labs, arts rehearsals and performances, and on-campus athletic experiences.

Parents are weighing the costs of paying full freight for a lesser experience. Sarah Albus, in Kensington, Maryland, has two college-aged daughters headed to universities in different states, both with different backup plans. Albus is reluctant to pay full tuition for online classes at Tulane, where one of her daughters is a sophomore. But her daughter intends to apply to medical school, and missing one semester of a yearlong science class might complicate the requirements for her degree.

“It’s so anxiety-provoking,” Albus said. “You can’t move forward on anything because you’re waiting for someone else to make a decision, and they’re just waiting to see what happens.”

Meanwhile, she expects tuition bills to arrive mid-July.

It’s impossible to measure the toll this disruption -- in social interactions, education, work experiences and professional aspirations -- will have on these young adults’ futures.

Mara Morell, a senior in Ballwin, Missouri, had planned to attend college in Florida, but says she will likely switch to community college if the fall semester is online.

She talked about the milestones her class has missed due to the pandemic -- graduations, proms, farewells. She said that through those losses, they kept saying, “‘At least we’ll have college’ -- but now we don’t know that for sure.”