This fall, 2.9 million freshmen are projected to embark on their college careers, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. This is traditionally a time marked with the excitement of newfound independence, new experiences and the prospect of a bright future. Instead, prospective college students now find themselves in the middle of a global pandemic and wondering about the impact of COVID-19 on their plans for college.
This year, Oregon’s high school seniors are finishing their final year through remote learning. Oregon’s universities are also conducting classes remotely, and some have extended remote teaching into the summer. While projections vary, no one knows for sure if the pandemic will dissipate soon, continue into summer or re-emerge in the fall.
COVID-19 has many rethinking their college plans for fall
In a study conducted by the Art & Science Group, a higher education consulting company, only 20% of students graduating from high school this year said they will still enroll in their original university of choice due to COVID-19.
“Students also appear to be concerned about complications in the admissions process that cause them to miss important deadlines or prevent them from having the information they need to make their decisions,” said the study’s authors.
Not being able to conduct campus visits is especially problematic, as that key step normally helps students gain insights into their best fit. Students responding to the survey also cited concerns about their families’ financial position and are starting to seek more affordable options such as public universities.
TIP #1: Adapt the college search to the pandemic
The essence of college choice still comes down to fit. Students should ask these questions: Do I prefer the excitement of a large campus or a smaller, more personal one? Does the university have the academic and social programming that interests me? Can I see myself living in an urban environment or near the mountains where outdoor recreation is plentiful?
While not ideal, students can still get a good feel for a university virtually. They can explore the campus culture by following university social media accounts, including those of student clubs that interest them. Virtual open house events allow students to find more detailed information than school websites.
Most universities are scheduling one-on-one virtual meetings with admission counselors, and some may connect prospective students to professors in their area of interest. This gives students a chance to interview the university and ask any questions they may have about a degree program, campus life, student housing or the local area.
TIP #2: Consider attending a four-year university close to home
No one knows for sure how long social distancing or travel restrictions will be in place. As the pandemic progresses and transmission decreases, these measures may be lifted.
“However, to mitigate the possibility of resurgences of infection, prolonged or intermittent periods of social distancing may be required,” said a team of researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in a study published in the journal Science.
It’s conceivable that students may have difficulty moving to a distant college or returning home for breaks. Some universities may begin fall term with remote learning then resume in-person classes after the term begins. In these cases, it may be more practical to attend a local college where it is easier to navigate these transitions.
Local universities can also be a safe bet when campus-visit plans are disrupted because students and families often already have a good sense of their local area and its universities.
TIP #3: A gap year or reduced course load are options but with caution
Simply deciding to take a year off can greatly simplify the college choice process during the pandemic. However, students normally take gap years to conduct internships, volunteer or earn income, all of which will be difficult if the pandemic continues or if there is a lingering employment downturn.
Taking a year off will also delay the time it takes to complete a college degree, become career-ready and enter the workforce. Times of economic downturn are actually the best times to pursue a degree, according to Laura Kloss, career services coordinator at Oregon State University - Cascades.
“The current economic situation provides a unique opportunity for students to continue and focus on their education,” she said. “We don’t know what it will look like yet, but the job market will recover and employers will be looking for candidates who are eager to learn and have the latest technical skills and knowledge to help advance their organizational goals.”
TIP #4: Look for universities with a strong track record of outcomes
With the state of the economy, it will be important to maximize the ability to get hired after graduating from college.
Most colleges track the percentage of students who get jobs or go to graduate school within six months. In a healthy economy, 90% or higher is good, and anything above 95% is excellent. Job placement rates as well as how many graduates are employed in their degree field are key questions to ask during one-on-one virtual meetings with admissions counselors. A low percentage could indicate problems with placement or the marketability of degrees being offered.
TIP #5: Choose a university with strong student support
During times of uncertainty, seek extra support, whether that means personalized instruction from a professor, working through financial aid questions or getting help from the student care team.
Many universities have strong support resources. However, smaller campuses are worth considering closely. At a small college, it may be easier to navigate the system and students will find a closer culture of personal connections between the student and their faculty and staff.
COVID-19 shouldn’t halt a college education
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically reshaped the college search and decision process at the same time millions of students and families are trying to make final college plans for fall. But, that shouldn’t mean putting a stop to pursuing higher education and career dreams. By adapting their college search and decision process, students can stay on track to earn their bachelor’s degree and prepare to successfully enter the workforce and contribute to society as quickly as possible.