College Flexibility and COVID-19: Expert Q&A

Parents are concerned with how the coronavirus is going to affect their students' futures. We've got advice from an expert consultant to help ease your stress!

Anyone who has worked with me knows I’m not afraid to take a stand and answer questions definitively. However, we are in a new world, and anyone who says they have definitive answers right now is wrong. What follows is my take on the most popular questions we are hearing from families regarding the future of higher education, and in many cases the bottom line is, “it depends.”

To help your family make more informed decisions based on your unique situation, I’ve put together responses to these questions, with some pros and cons outlined. It’s critically important that families be aware of the downsides of taking certain actions right now as well as the possible benefits. As frustrating as it is to hear “it depends,” the more information you’re armed with before heading into the fall, the better prepared you’ll be to be flexible. Let’s take a deep dive into where we are now with June approaching.

If campuses open this fall, will it be safe to go to classes in person, or will schools offer the option of attending classes online if a student feels more comfortable doing so?

Safety is at the top of everyone’s mind right now. Many campuses that are planning to open appear to be offering live lectures with the option to view them online. Beyond classes, don’t expect anything on campus to be as imagined: big-time sports, crowded dorms, clubs, group activities, parties, and large introductory lecture classes will all likely change. Families are asking who they should trust regarding safety on campus, and this too is a moving target as administrators get a handle on new procedures and protective measures. Make sure to monitor your student’s college’s social media posts to understand how proactive the school is being in getting ready for students to arrive back on campus

If a school does decide to open, housing changes may be substantial, with several universities leasing off-campus housing to allow for social distancing in campus housing; this will likely be a less desirable (but in most cases, safer) situation for students. Check the housing options available should your student’s college open up for fall, as some campuses are located in expensive areas where this may be prohibitive. Refund policies are also shifting, so read any housing and meal contracts carefully.

Some nearby colleges are opening up admission to students this fall—should we explore this option?

Many colleges have reopened their admission cycles and are reaching out to students that live close to their campuses, as some families may feel more comfortable with closer-to-home options for their students. In fact, NACAC’s list of colleges with openings is almost double what it was at this time last year. Even if colleges in your area haven’t officially reopened their admission cycle, it’s worth checking with them to see if they’ll accept applications. But be wary, as financial aid or merit aid offers may not be what they would’ve been earlier in the admission cycle, and often the students they’re taking at the last minute are “full-pay” students. Before making changes to your family’s plans, make sure you get a commitment on financial aid.

Related: Planning for College During COVID-19: Counselor Q&A

Should students consider a gap year or deferral, and how will colleges react to this request?

Considering the gap year

While most students gain immeasurable life experience from a gap year—and colleges see the benefit in terms of focus and maturity in these students—it can be expensive. Traditional gap year options involve international travel, internships, work, and volunteer activities, most of which are up in the air for the foreseeable future. This is why many students will opt for committing to college for the fall, regardless of the format it will take, assuring them a spot for four years and a jump into the job market sooner.

Colleges delaying deferrals

It appears as though most colleges will hedge their bets until at least June 1 before making commitments regarding deferrals. Colleges need to know how many students will be committing to their college before reviewing deferral requests as they try to estimate their class sizes. And they have to be fair to this year’s high school juniors and not overload next year’s entering class with deferred students. Most colleges have standard practices for accepting a deferral (including not accepting credits from other institutions), as they like to see a plan that has merit before saving the student a spot for next year—but these fixed plans are being cast to the wind due to the higher number of requests and limits may be added. Colleges are thinking creatively too—some are adding a new spring start for deferrals for the first time right now.

What colleges need from you

If your student is considering either option, colleges will want to see a deposit and a plan—the sooner the better. Make sure to check that your financial aid and merit aid can remain in place. Often, these packages are readjusted the following year, which can be a surprise to students who defer. And some colleges won’t allow deferrals at all, requiring students to reapply.

Related: Connecting With Colleges During the COVID-19 Outbreak

Is starting online classes at a community college or through a less expensive online school a good option?

Community college courses have always been a popular option for students looking for a less expensive way to build credits while commuting from home. Many community colleges will offer only online courses, while others are able to offer on-campus experiences with more limited offerings. In addition, many traditional universities offer less expensive online degrees and have been doing it for years.

Should your student decide to study at a nearby community college or through a less expensive online college and later transfer to a four-year program, the applicant may be considered a transfer student depending on the number of credits they have. Be aware that transfer students are offered much less (if any) merit scholarships or other aid, and financial aid packages can be less generous. Housing options can be more limited as well, so keep all this in mind as your family decides on a plan. Getting credits to transfer takes work, so students should be prepared with course descriptions and syllabi to maximize their credits once they transfer.      

What’s going to happen with financial aid—will appeals for more aid be successful?

Colleges put a lot of students on waitlists this year as a hedge against the growing threat to their enrollment with the impact of the virus spreading so rapidly while they were making final choices. The sad fact is that many families who are “full pay” and require little to no financial aid will be given priority as colleges begin to pull from their very large waitlists this year. While not a universal approach, this has been a growing trend, as colleges reach into their waitlist after financial offers have been made and their budgets are more solidified.  

College budgets have been hit their hardest in history, with refunds for housing, a loss of income from lucrative on-campus summer programs, and the huge cost of converting to online learning this spring and planning for fall. Appealing your financial aid package is still an option, but special cases are likely to be much higher as many have had their jobs and incomes impacted. This new free tool offers a way to appeal your award.

With the AP tests changing, will colleges still accept AP credits?

The consensus is that, regardless of the new shortened online format, colleges will honor all AP test scores and award credits accordingly. Lists of colleges accepting credits are growing and it’s helpful to monitor, but always check your specific college’s website to confirm information and get the latest updates. Many colleges make decisions on what AP credits to accept once your student is enrolled.

Will support be available for my LD student: psychological support, career support, tutoring?

One of the benefits of being on campus is that students are able to access tutoring, psychological, and learning support services. Should your student need support, check with these offices to confirm they’re prepared to provide support online if necessary. Impacted budgets could mean cutbacks in these areas, and having easy access to this support can mean the difference between success and failure for many students.

Related: Understanding Learning Differences and What Services Colleges Offer 

As you and your student reassess the coming fall and considers all your options, keep in mind that colleges will be doing whatever they can to make the experience as positive as possible. The students who benefit the most from college are those who are actively engaged in their academics and campus communities, taking advantage of the opportunities and resources offered. While the college experience may not be what students dreamed of this year, knowing how to navigate their options is a great first step as things continue to change.

For more advice and support during this confusing time, check out our COVID-19 student resources page.

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