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Changing Your College Plans Amid COVID-19: What Are Your Best Options?

Deferral, gap year, community college, or simply staying the course...which is right for you during this tumultuous time? Get advice from our experts.

Is COVID-19 Affecting Your College Plans? We were recently contacted by a Massachusetts nonprofit, Danny’s Place Youth Services, whose mission is to support youth and teens in their community. They offer various programs, workshops, resources, and more, including programs for college planning. Their team reached out to us to collaborate on this article in order to shed some light on options for prospective college students and their families whose plans may have changed as a result of current events. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed almost everything...for almost everyone. If you had plans to attend college in the fall, you may be reconsidering—especially if your family’s financial situation has changed, you’ve lost a loved one, or your intended school is far away from home. What’s a hopeful college student in the time of COVID-19 to do? Let’s go through your options.

Defer admission/enrollment

Pandemics aside, some students decide to defer their enrollment after they’ve been accepted to college. Individual colleges and universities have their own unique deferral policies; some schools automatically grant a yearlong deferral of admission upon request; others review deferral requests individually. More than six colleges contacted by Inside Higher Ed for their blog A College Dream Deferred? say they aren’t changing their deferral policies at this time—however, they’ll reassess as necessary in the coming months. If you decide to defer, your request could be granted right away...or denied.

  • If the request is granted, don’t forget to ask if need-based financial aid and/or merit aid will still be awarded the following year. Also inquire about any limitations or rules that must be adhered to during your time away. Most colleges will not allow you to take classes at another institution during that year off.
  • If the request is not granted, then you’ll have a choice: you can either attend your chosen school, or you can choose to reapply the following year. You may also opt to begin your studies elsewhere and eventually apply again as a transfer student.

Related: List: Schools That Offer Deferred Admission of More Than 1 Year

Take a gap year

According to the Gap Year Association, a gap year is "a semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school and prior to career or post-secondary education, in order to deepen one's practical, professional, and personal awareness." A gap year can be an incredibly enriching experience for many students. It’s not for everyone, but it could certainly be right for you.

Stay closer to home

The thought of traveling anytime soon may be enough to spike your anxiety, and so could the thought of being far away from your family. One way to spare yourself the stress is by attending a college or university in your city or state. If you were accepted to a state school, consider enrolling there to start. After all, many public schools rank incredibly high and offer a valuable education at a lower price point than their private competitors.

Choose a community college

Attending a community college can be a great way to save money, ease into the college experience, and get general education requirements out of the way. Though you may not have a high opinion of community colleges, they can actually be gateways into the nation’s top four-year schools. In fact, many schools have articulation agreements, which are formal partnerships between two or more colleges and universities documenting the transfer policies for a specific academic program or degree in general.

Stick with your original plan

So long as you are able, you may just want to stick to your original plan: attend your chosen school come September. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, many schools are planning to reopen in the fall, either with an on-campus, online, or hybrid learning model.

Thoughts on your options from the experts

CounselorEric Endlich, PhD
Top College Consultants®
 The COVID-19 pandemic and the prospect of college courses being delivered remotely this coming year has led a vast number of graduating high school seniors to consider deferring or taking a gap year. Many students look forward to a traditional college experience, living in residence halls, joining clubs, playing sports, and making friends in person; continuing to live at home and study virtually can seem much less appealing. If you’re considering taking a gap year, I encourage you to explore the following four questions:

  1. Why do you want to take a gap year? It’s an important decision, and colleges will want you to justify your request. Simply saying, “I don’t want to study online” is unlikely to be sufficient. You will need a reason for starting college later and a plan for how you will spend your year, which leads to the next question...
  2. What will you do during your gap year? Normally, you’d have a dizzying array of choices for what to do: work, travel, or participate in a hands-on gap-year program, to name a few. But travel may be less safe, and high unemployment rates may make it harder to find a job. If you’re a self-starter, you might create your own business (say, mowing lawns, running errands, or designing websites). You might have a creative project in mind (e.g., composing songs or writing poetry), or a learning goal (e.g., repairing cars or speaking Japanese). However, if you don’t have a meaningful year planned, maybe getting started on college—even if conditions are less than optimal—isn’t such a bad option.
  3. Will your college grant your request? In the past, some colleges have strictly limited the number of gap year requests they’ve granted. Each student who defers for a year means one less tuition check the school receives this year, and one more freshman they have to make room for next year. If you are planning to request a deferral, do so as soon as you commit and put down your deposit—since it may be on a first come, first served basis. Incidentally, if you’re thinking about taking only a “gap semester” in the fall, be advised that historically, this has rarely been permitted. However, this year is shaping up to be unique, so who knows? The circumstances of a global health crisis may provide some leniency there.
  4. How will delaying college impact you? Sometimes, taking an additional year before starting college helps you feel more confident and prepared to live away from home and handle college-level courses. A year of working or traveling—being in “the real world”—may give you a broader perspective when interacting with professors and classmates. On the flip side, tuition tends to rise steadily, so delaying your education could cost you more. Also, if you start college later, you might feel “out of sync” with your former high school friends, and you’ll be entering your career (i.e., building your savings) later as well.

Once you answer these questions, your plan will practically map itself out. Just do your due diligence, explore your options, and do what makes the most sense for your goals.

Related: Your Goals, Your Life, Your Gap Year

CounselorLaurie Kopp Weingarten
CEO, President & Chief Educational Consultant

One-Stop College Counseling
As far as deferment goes, many colleges report that they haven’t received an unusual number of deferral requests thus far—but that may change if more colleges decide to remain online in the fall. If you’re one of the students considering deferment, make sure you are aware of your college’s deferral request deadline. You should also be advised that some colleges have indicated they will grant the deferral automatically, while others would like to know why you want to defer and what your plans are. There are certain institutions that will simply not grant the deferrals for various reasons.

For those students considering a gap year instead, I suggest checking out the Gap Year Association mentioned earlier; it’s the only national nonprofit working to coordinate the growing “Gap Year Movement.” There are also programs that award college credit for the gap experience, such as Verto Education. If you’d like to work on a political campaign, you could look into Election 2020 Gap Year, whose mission is to empower the nation’s youth to take an intentional gap year in 2020 to work on an election campaign or for an issues-based organization that resonates with their values. In that same vein, students who are passionate about service may consider AmeriCorps, which offers a variety of service opportunities, from the classroom to the outdoors and everything in between. Whatever you decide, make sure you have a plan. Employ the help of mentors you trust to get organized and focused. There are even gap year planning professionals—in fact, EnRoute Consulting now has a page dedicated to COVID-19–driven gap year planning.

Most of our One-Stop College Counseling students are sticking to their original plan. Our team agrees with their decision to stay the course; however, there are certainly some situations that may require you to pivot and select another option. Perhaps one of your family members is sick and you want to be nearby. Maybe your family’s financial situation has changed, and it would be wise to find a less expensive college or a school closer to home. Or, if you have a compromised immune system, living in a dormitory and attending filled-to-the-gills lectures may be too risky.

If these circumstances do not apply to you, however, ask yourself: what is driving you to reconsider your college plans? Think through the possible questions and scenarios that may arise. Do you want to graduate with the Class of 2024 or with the Class of 2025? How will you feel when your friends leave for college? Are you excited about what you’ll be doing? What if classes start on campus this fall but there’s a second wave of the coronavirus, forcing classes to go online? How long are you willing to wait this out? Everyone has their own unique circumstances, and there is never an “easy” or clear-cut answer. Throughout this frightening and trying time, it’s important to listen to your inner voice. There are so many things to consider, but ultimately, you need to do what’s best for you.

Related: Common (Unfounded) Concerns About Taking a Gap Year

CounselorAnne R. Wager
Founder and CEO, Corsava
Independent Educational Consultant
Changing plans when you thought you had things nailed down is hard in the best of times. But right now, when every week brings new predictions and plans from colleges, pivoting can be even more challenging. Before you make any decisions, make sure to look inward and ask yourself these questions to evaluate the long-term impact of your decision:

  1. If I decide to take classes at a community college in the fall, will my credits transfer to a four-year school later? Many colleges require highly specific core classes, and trying to meet those requirements takes some solid planning. Do your due diligence and find out exactly what you’ll need to make a seamless transfer.
  2. Will being a transfer student affect my financial/merit aid packages? Financial aid packages can be less generous for transfer students. Plus, there are unique ups and downs associated with being a transfer student. Think about navigating this transition and how you’d handle it.
  3. If I go ahead and stick with “Plan A,” am I willing to pivot to online courses? Many colleges may start on campus and move online later if there’s a second wave of the coronavirus outbreak; this should come into play as you evaluate your options, especially if you’re at a higher risk of contracting a more severe case of the virus. Is it worth the trouble of lugging yourself and your things to campus if you’ll just have to turn right back around?
  4. Am I willing to give up my plans to travel to a new place and live independently? Going away (even if it’s in close proximity to your home) to college is a pretty major milestone. Many students have dreamed of this, in some form or another, for years. Giving up the campus experience may be a big deal, so make sure you are willing to do this, even if it’s only temporary.
  5. If I dive in now to a hybrid or fully online program, could this be helpful in the future? It is looking more and more like our workforce is moving online in a major way. Consider the pros and cons of getting a better handle on this as a few years from now, you may be even more savvy when it comes to being hired or heading to graduate school.

This is not a decision that should be taken lightly, so put some time and thought behind it. You can do it! We know college planning is stressful as it is, but college planning during a pandemic? It’s not exactly what any student signed up for, but we hope this expert advice makes you feel a little less lost and a little more hopeful.

For more coronavirus-related advice, check out our Resources Students Need During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Just starting out on your college search? Get things rolling with our College Search tool!

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