The answer, like so many other college-related questions, is “It depends.”
As COVID-19 continues to disrupt our lives and stay-at-home directives extend into May, speculation has been rising about how colleges are going to handle the fall semester if the pandemic does not sufficiently subside.
This uncertainly then naturally leaves families with HS seniors the difficult decision about how to handle their own plans for fall.
No one knows yet whether colleges will be open in the fall, and what classes and the student experience will look like. There is no “right” answer. This is a decision that each family needs to make based on what they feel is best for their student.
Here are some important points to consider:
Colleges are not the enemy
I certainly have my share of issues with how colleges conduct business, but this generally is not one of them. While they can be an easy and convenient target, colleges are not the enemy.
Like the rest of us, higher ed leaders are being forced to make incredibly difficult decisions with information that changes by the day. In many cases, there are no good options, only less-bad ones.
The many folks in higher ed I know are acutely aware of the public relations issues they face with any decision, and understand that they must prioritize the safety of students and faculty/staff or risk a backlash that could cause irreparable harm to their institution.
There will be no “normal” college experience in Fall 2020 and in fact, that may have changed forever. But that is not the colleges’ fault.
Gap Years aren’t a straightforward solution
Many pundits are offering Gap Years as an obvious solution for families, and for some, it might very well be the right decision. But there are a few important details to consider.
- First, not all colleges will hold their acceptance and will instead require the student to apply again the next year. Clearly these are extraordinary times, but families need to ask their college for its policy on the matter instead of just assuming they are guaranteed a spot the following year.
- Second, Gap Year options, too, are going to look different in the new COVID-19 world, and families will need to weigh just how impactful they will be. Some families may be considering having their student live at home and earn credits at a local community college as a type of Gap Year, but that may not be as good of an idea as it seems. Most colleges will then treat a student as a transfer, and the student loses the original financial aid award and is offered a new, usually less generous, financial aid package.
- Third, even if you don’t take classes at another institution, your current financial aid award may change anyway. Some schools do honor the same scholarships the following year, but it varies by institution. And even if merit aid stays the same, the need-based portion of the award will change because you will be completing an updated FAFSA or CSS profile with new tax return and financial info.
What is the opportunity cost?
“Opportunity cost” is an economic term that means you give up some potential gain from an alternate choice whenever you make a decision.
In this case, a family may choose to wait a year to start college. But that also means the student enters the workforce and begins earning full-time income one year later.
There is also value in staying in a school routine. Our schedules are so out-of-whack from the pandemic, that moving forward with the structure of a college schedule, even if it is different, could be healthy for students.
No matter your decision, communicate openly with the college of your choice so you can kick off your freshman year at the right time for your family.