College amid coronavirus: high school seniors wary of paying for ‘Zoom U’

Why We Wrote This

The class of 2020 has resigned itself to no pomp, due to circumstances. But high school seniors are wary of paying thousands without knowing what fall will look like – leading to uncertainty about both their futures, and colleges’.

Khadejeh Nikouyeh/News & Record/AP
A senior smiles for a photo at cap and gown pick-up at Ragsdale High School near Greensboro, North Carolina, on April 29, 2020. One-third of high school seniors say they would rather not enroll this fall if college classes are online.

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Plainfield High senior Devon Post has not enjoyed finishing high school online. He doesn’t have Wi-Fi in his remote part of Connecticut, and using his phone to create a hotspot for his aging computer has been spotty, at best.

So the idea of paying thousands of dollars for more of the same in the fall does not appeal.

“I need to be hands-on. I don’t know if the online courses can work for me,” he says.

The first week of May has long been the traditional deadline for high school seniors to choose which college to attend. But with uncertainty surrounding the ongoing impact of COVID-19, many students can’t bring themselves to put down the deposit. The decisions they make could have huge ramifications for institutions of higher learning, some of which were already cash-strapped before the pandemic meant a financial hit worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I know that getting a college degree is definitely a better start and you get better pay,” says Mr. Post, who enrolled at his first choice: the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “But if they decide to do online this fall, I don’t know if I can justify paying thousands of dollars and taking out loans.”

The past year was a whirlwind of activity for Samantha Beeson, a high school senior who was looking forward to end-of-year rituals before heading off to college in the fall. 

As the president of the marketing club at Johnson Ferry Christian Academy in Marietta, Georgia, a trained Italian opera singer active in theater, and a cheerleader, she was already anticipating mixed emotions as all her activities came to an end and a new stage in her life commenced.  

“I think of the senior year of high school, it’s kind of the end of being a kid,” says Ms. Beeson, who just sent her deposit to enroll in Furman University in South Carolina. “But then the coronavirus kinda took that closure from us in such an unexpected way and in such a fast amount of time.”

“And I don’t think there’s anything harder than hearing your graduation, when you’re going to walk across the stage and with all your friends, and your family is going to be there, and, you know, now that’s going to be over a Zoom call. It’s kinda disheartening,” Ms. Beeson says. “And now the beginning of college might be taken away as well.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

The first week of May has long been among the most busy for admissions officers, as the traditional deadline for high school seniors and others to choose which college to attend. But with uncertainty surrounding the ongoing impact of COVID-19 across the country, many students like Ms. Beeson can't bring themselves to put down the deposit. The decisions they make could have huge ramifications for institutions of higher learning, some of which were already cash-strapped before the pandemic meant a financial hit worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I know that getting a college degree is definitely a better start and you get better pay,” says Devon Post, a senior at Plainfield High School in rural Connecticut, who enrolled at his first choice: the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. 

“But if they decide to do online this fall, I don’t know if I can justify paying thousands of dollars and taking out loans,” says Mr. Post, an ambassador for the National Society for High School Scholars (NSHSS).

He hasn’t enjoyed finishing high school online, either. Living in a relatively remote part of Connecticut with his mom, a manager at Foxwoods Casino, he can’t get Wi-Fi. Using his cellphone as a hotspot for his aging computer has been spotty.

“I need to be hands-on. I don’t know if the online courses can work for me,” he says.

Ms. Beesen feels similarly, even though she still plans to enroll in Furman University even if they start online. 

Leila Navidi/Star Tribune/AP
Serafina Rivera, a senior at Nova Classical Academy, dances with her prom date Ben Parsonage, a junior, during their prom for two at Ms. Rivera's home in St. Paul, Minn., on May 1, 2020. With schools cancelled due to coronavirus concerns, Ms. Rivera’s mother Deborah Rathman decided to throw a prom in her own home. The couple have only had contact with each other and their own families since Minnesota's stay-at-home order began.

“The idea of doing my first semester of college online is hard for me, because it’s already so expensive,” Ms. Beeson says. “We’re not only paying for classes, we’re paying for the experience. We’re paying for the dorm life, the cafeteria life, the outdoor life, and all those things why I chose to go to Furman in the first place.” 

Across the country, about half of high school seniors and returning students say they could deal with e-learning and online classes in their colleges this fall, though they would much prefer in-person classes, according to a national survey released last week by the NSHSS. About a third of U.S. students, however, said they would rather not enroll this fall if classes meet online.

A number of colleges and universities in California and other states have already announced they plan to hold online classes this fall, while other U.S. institutions say they will reopen with in-person classes. In a survey of college officials by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, more than half said they were making plans for the possibility of putting the fall semester entirely online.

“I see a lot of families doing a huge sort of philosophical shift in their minds, asking, like, why were we going to a particular college to begin with?” says Craig Meister, an admissions consultant based in Baltimore. “Was it for the name? Was it for the prestige? Was it for the experience?”

“But I think a lot of students and families are realizing, it’s not just the five classes you are going to be taking in the fall, or the name you’ll graduate with, but the experience of being in dorms, networking, fraternities and sororities, making new friends, being independent,” continues Mr. Meister. “And if that’s all taken away from you – and so much else has seemed to be recently taken away from these students and families – is now really the time to proceed?”

Students like Mr. Post have begun to consider taking a “gap year,” and deferring their enrollment until the fall of 2021. Some are beginning to question the need to spend – or borrow – the exorbitant costs of going to college in the first place.

“I’ve never had a job, so maybe just getting an apprenticeship might be nice,” says Mr. Post. “And once I start getting work skills and ability – meaning the kinds of stuff that my future employers can see I have – maybe I need to just take a couple leap years before deciding on going to college. I’ll even have some money in the bank.”

The uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and its ongoing impact going into the fall has also left college admissions officers scrambling as many see enrollment numbers decline and requests to take a gap year rise.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot of students take advantage of the deadline flexibility that we offered,” says Adam Miller, director of admission at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, noting that a number of families want to wait before submitting a deposit.

“But there’s the possibility that when it comes down to it, and it’s July or August and students start considering their options for next year, there may not be very many attractive options,” he says. “A lot of gap year programs involve summer work, maybe some sort of academic experience, or maybe travel. And those are all pretty severely impacted as well by COVID-19. It’s not clear to me what the comparable alternatives will be for students.”

Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, has also seen a lag in enrollments so far, says Kristen Capezza, vice president of enrollment management. “We’re seeing the aftermath of those students who are trying to hold out for a level of certainty before making their decision,” she says.

“As much as hopefully we can work to resume an in-person semester, I do think there’ll be some added precautions either way,” she says. The university has been setting up classrooms to follow social distancing guidelines and starting to look at the possibility of testing students to create a bubble on campus, or resume group gatherings with temperature scans or required masks. 

“Until a vaccine becomes available, I think you’ll start to see a lot of that at campuses in the fall,” Ms. Capezza continues. “I don’t see how you can resume business as usual without some of those added precautionary measures in place.”

Still, rather than delaying the start of a college education, she says now is actually the best time to begin. “Typically when economies weaken, you’ll see education actually start to pick up because it’s the perfect time to go in and strengthen skill sets and learn and prepare yourself for when the economy gets stronger and things start to boom again,” she says.

This is one reason Ms. Beeson is planning to start Furman this fall, even if her summer orientation has already been cancelled and her college career will begin with online classes at home in Georgia. 

Despite the disappointments of the disrupted end-of-semester rituals, she has been discovering something completely new about herself, she says, as her yearslong frantic schedule has slowed to a home-bound crawl.

“It’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned, how we live in such a fast-paced world, and how important it is not always having to be busy,” Ms. Beeson says. “And just the power of being bored – so many creative ideas, so many values I’ve suddenly realized.” Among those: “Being with my family, getting to spend a lot more time with my sister, getting to know her better – especially if I’m about to move to college.”

“Don’t get me wrong, this hasn’t been easy for me,” she says. “But I definitely have reprioritized and learned a lot I probably wouldn’t have.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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