Making College Enrollment Decisions During the Pandemic

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One of the biggest conundrums facing today's college-bound high school seniors is which college to choose among those that have welcomed them. Decision deadlines have been extended for many schools, in light of the COVID-19 crisis, and because of ongoing lagging enrollments, more colleges are extending their deposit deadlines. One large question mark remains at this point, though: Will colleges be bringing students back to campus for fall semester this year?

In my last article, I listed some colleges that are planning on opening up for the Fall 2020 semester. Of course, those plans are contingent on the pandemic tapering off and no "second wave" of virus infections emerging later this summer or early in the fall. Some experts have predicted a second wave for the US, and a number of countries — China and Germany, for example — have already experienced second waves and have reimplemented lockdowns.

One large university system has already made the bold choice to defer in-person classes to 2021 — the California State University system. In an dramatic announcement Tuesday (May 12), Chancellor Timothy White said that administrators plan to cancel all in-person classes for the fall and to continue instruction online due to the coronavirus pandemic. The decision will affect all 23 of the system's universities. "This virtual planning approach for the next academic year is necessary because of the evolving data surrounding the progression of COVID-19," White explained to CSU trustees.

Online Classes Appear to Be Unpopular With Many

At this moment, about 70 percent of schools commenting on the Fall 2020 semester are planning to bring students back to campus. That percentage varies from day to day as more colleges and universities decide between in-person and online classes, and this brings us back to students' decisions about where to attend college. The specter of fall online classes isn't a popular one and the desire for a full return is reflected in this recent poll, which shows, among other things:

  • 65 percent say they would attend in-person classes (even without a vaccine)
  • 31 percent say they would only attend virtually
  • 4 percent say they would withdraw from school.

As that poll indicates, a majority of college students don't like distance learning. The margin of majority varies from survey to survey, but there are specific issues they dislike, or even "hate," as noted in GetEducated's survey: 5 Things Real Students Hate about Online Learning Degrees. While these comments reflect attitudes of online-degree students, they're also applicable to this year's residential collegians who have been forced online due to the pandemic. Here are three key points about their dissatisfaction:

Missing or Disengaged Professors

"Where's my professor?" is the most frequent and vitreous complaint when it comes to online learning. Students sometimes feel online learning is impersonal, isolating, and non-interactive. They sometimes feel their online teachers are not particularly interested in neither them nor the instructional process

Hate the Group Assignments and Team Projects

Our student blogger, David Handlos, once wrote about his first online learning program: "the words 'group assignment' filled me with dread." … One of online learning's dirty little secrets is that group projects are popular with some online schools not because they are educationally appropriate, but because they require less time to respond to, track, and grade. Group assignments are very cost-effective from an administrative point of view

Poor Online Course Design

Creating a great online learning course takes time, money, and talent in user interface and aesthetic design alike – things some universities may not be quite willing to splurge on. Online students are noticing problems in the overall quality of course materials and the integration of instructional materials with testing protocols

Because of the above sentiments, I'm betting that a (yet to be determined) number of high school seniors will make their enrollment decisions based on what their admitting colleges decide about in-person classes vs. online teaching for the Fall 2020 semester. Uncertainty about COVID-19's behavior will also cause anxiety. Some schools have noted that they will not be making a firm decision until summer (June or July). Enrollment deadlines falling before schools' in-person vs. online class decisions will create yet another conundrum: What if a school reverts to online after a student enrolls under an in-person pledge? Imagine the ripples that decision would cause.

Of course, at this point in the "pandemic college process," we're dealing in pure speculation; what's going to happen is unknown. We can hypothesize, however. In the scenario above, where a high school senior commits and enrolls in a college proclaiming "100 percent in-person classes this fall," what can that student do if a COVID-19 second wave erupts and the college has to close and move to online classes, as they did this past spring? The student can transfer, withdraw or even choose to wait out the pandemic during a gap year, if the school permits such an option.

The University of Oregon announced during the last week of April that it would extend its enrollment deadline from May 1 to September 1. In-person classes there start in late September. This offers seniors who have been accepted by UOregon but are planning to enroll elsewhere a valuable, late-in-the-game fallback option, in case their first-choice school welches on their promise to go with in-person classes. Of course, UOregon could also flip on its in-person commitment, too, and that's what makes this year's enrollment decision process so roll-the-dice daunting.

Consider This Plan for Deciding

What's my advice to high school seniors hoisted on the horns of indecision about where to enroll? Here's my four-point plan:

1. Don't believe everything you read or hear. There's a lot of misinformation out there, including those important-sounding proclamations from so-called "experts." Stick to objective sources and avoid "opinion" and "commentary."

2. Wait as long as you can before enrolling. Most colleges, out of compassion for your situation, have pushed back their deadlines, some as far as September 1. Rank your acceptances in deadline order and consider which is your true first choice school. Then you can select a later-deadline school as a candidate if your first choice flips from in-person to online classes before school starts. This will give you an escape route if you can no longer abide distance learning.

3. Be prepared for anything. Flexibility is crucial in dealing with this pandemic. We all make careful plans, but sometimes those plans get run over by a circumstantial steamroller. Create your plan in good faith, using careful judgment about the information you've gathered to make your decision(s), and act on it. If COVID-19 decides to pull the rug out from under you, move to Plan B, C or even D. That's where flexibility comes in. It won't be the end of the world as you know it (avoid catching the virus, though!). Sit back, regroup, consider alternative plans, make the appropriate choice and apply it.

4. Know that getting through this will make you a better person. You'll be better able to deal with adversity in the future. Our muscles get stronger only by encountering resistance. Our lives are enhanced by meeting and making the most of difficult situations. Your college enrollment decision will likely not be the most difficult decision you'll ever have to make. It's not an easy one now, but once you've made an informed choice and enjoyed its success, you'll be ready to build even bigger biceps with tougher choices!

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