Choosing a School Away From Home During a Pandemic

Choosing a college during a pandemic

Choosing a School Away From Home During a Pandemic

Published April 14, 2020

Choosing a college during a pandemic

Figuring out where to go to college is one of the biggest decisions your child will make.

There are a number of factors to think about, and now, with COVID-19 impacting whether campuses will be open in the fall, that decision, especially as it relates to attending college away from home, has gotten more complicated.

In his recent newsletter, author and higher-education expert Jeff Selingo says: “36% of college presidents think serious disruption awaits campuses in the fall, according to a survey in late March by American Association of Colleges and Universities and ABC Insights.”

Questions About College to Consider During a Pandemic

To help your child find the best school-away-from-home fit, we’ve come up with a list of questions to ponder. 

1. When will the school know if they’re going online for the fall?

For most schools, the news could come out as late as August.

Education experts agree that COVID-19 testing and the development of a vaccine are going to be key. Schools may have to push the decision about allowing students to return to campus as far back as they can.  

2. Is your child willing to say yes to a school without knowing if classes will be online in the fall?

It may come down to moving forward either way and rolling with the news, regardless.

As the impact of the virus continues to shake out at schools, and perhaps financially, at home, your child may want to consider some alternatives to the more traditional path of high school to college.

Those alternatives may include taking a gap year, going to community college for the first two years of school, or perhaps attending a hybrid that allows for living on campus combined with online learning. 

A gap year can be a semester or an entire school year where you are not enrolled in a full-time higher-education program, but are working to gain experience in some other way.  

Deferment is when you delay starting college. Sometimes a school defers your application, and other times a student may request it. Requesting deferment is not a guarantee you will get it, and the amount of time you can defer varies between schools.

If a school defers an application it means the school wants more information about the student, such as grades, etc., before deciding if they are accepted.

3. If there’s a surge in COVID-19 cases that forces schools to close campuses again, can the school handle the shift back to online?  

To get a better idea of what the answer is, encourage your child to find some current students at the schools they’re most interested in.

They can do this in a variety of ways, including: asking their high school counselor to let them know which graduates are currently attending those schools; or looking online directly through Linked In and Twitter for current students or recent grads.

Questions to ask those students and grads: Has the school conducted online classes previously?  How have they handled the transition to everyone learning online?

Most schools are likely a work-in-progress on this, and much will change over the summer as they strive to meet students’ needs.

Your child can also go to the Department of Education’s College Navigator and look under the enrollment section.

There, they’ll find the percentage of students who’re enrolled in distance (online) learning.

If the percentage is low, the transition could be more difficult for that school.

Call the counselor’s office and ask the same questions. They’re available to help, and want to hear from your child. 

4. Is the school affordable? 

Make sure your family discusses finances and what you can and cannot afford to contribute. The pandemic is continually changing the financial outlook for everyone, including how much schools offer in the way of aid. On the other hand, it may also change how much a school costs to attend–especially if students cannot live on campus. 

5. Does your child prefer a smaller school, or a larger, more diverse one? And are they okay with a school that requires airline travel to come back home, especially if there’s another worldwide emergency?

This is harder to imagine since they can’t visit campuses right now, but in general, they might think about whether they’re more comfortable in larger or smaller settings. Flights are an added expense to keep in mind. 

6. Does the school have a major they’re interested in, and one that will help them find a job?

Nobody really knows how the pandemic will affect future careers, and the economy, long-term. During our recent FB Live author-educator Michael Horn suggested that skills such as problem solving, communication, and collaboration will become more in demand.

Still, he says, your son or daughter shouldn’t “game the system,” but major in what excites them.

Jeff Selingo agrees: “There definitely are going to be shifts, we just don’t know where yet.”

The key, they both say, is to get experience in addition to schooling–take the opportunity to work on projects, in clubs, do internships, etc.

It’s the best way for them to advance their skill set, and be more attractive to future employers.

7. Has your child researched these topics at schools of interest to them? (This kind of information is available on school websites, and is great to discuss with current students, recent grads, and admissions officers.)

  • Available majors
  • How to schedule classes and what the course load requirements are for majors
  • The kinds of classroom equipment available to students
  • Meal-plan options and requirements
  • If there’s a Greek life on campus
  • If there are social opportunities beyond Greek life
  • Financial aid (this will change as the pandemic continues)
  • If there are school sports 
  • The availability of school jobs and internships
  • How to find supplies on campus
  • How to receive and send packages and mail
  • What the transportation options are
  • The school’s safety program
  • The school’s health center 
  • If there’s a job placement program
  • If there’s a strong alumni network
  • Student groups and activities to become involved with

8. Is the school in good shape financially?

Look for clues using a variety of sources and resources.

Check the school’s website and look for any published financial information, including the size of the school’s endowments and any relevant state funding increases or decreases. 

Look for enrollment trends downward: for a small school especially, this may mean they’re not meeting their goals.

Enrollment information for many schools is compiled annually in something called the Common Data Set. You can find it most easily from home by doing a search from a school’s website for: Common Data Set.  

Be aware that, much like a store offering deep discounts to attract more customers, a school offering to cut prices by a significant percentage (they’re all discounting to a certain extent) may be trying to attract students in large numbers to enroll. This can be a red flag that they’re having financial difficulty. Schools need students who can pay full price in the mix. 

What about the community that surrounds the school? Is the economy healthy? Can you glean any information about the school from their local TV news, radio, or online and print publications?

If a school is having financial difficulty, rest assured, said author-educator Michael Horn during our recent Facebook Live interview, that they “have a legal obligation to their students to be upfront about it,” and that it’s less likely to be an issue this year than it might be in the years that follow the pandemic. 

There are also a number of sites you can access with financial information about a school.

9. Does the school have programs in place to help retain students, especially freshmen who may be struggling?

These programs are often connected to schools that are within colleges and universities (such as the school of communications, etc.), as well as within individual dorms.

Check with admission counselors or current students.

10. If appropriate, does the school have a special needs program? 

This information should also be available online.

As the pandemic continues to evolve, and until a vaccine is found, it may be that not all the questions can be fully answered right now.

That said, the process of becoming well-informed will help make the decision easier, and will keep your child moving forward at an important time in their lives.

Keep in mind that going away to school is an exciting step for both your child and you.

Supporting them wherever they choose to go is an important part of their journey to adulthood. 







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