The University Network

How COVID-19 Is Impacting Seniors’ College Decisions

The college decision process is rarely easy for high school seniors. But, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s graduates are enduring challenges faced by no class before them.

Carlos, a high school senior from Westchester County, New York, is one of the many students impacted by the pandemic. COVID-19 has slowed down his father’s business, affecting his family’s financial situation. As a result, he’s been forced to rethink where he’ll be going to school in the fall. 

“Money is more of a factor now than before,” Carlos said. “The schools that I got into that are giving me less money are going lower on the list of possibilities for me. The schools that gave me the most money, right now, are my top choices. I feel like I have fewer options.”

Carlos is not alone. All across the United States, COVID-19 has caused high school seniors to forgo attending their dream schools in exchange for something that is cheaper and closer to home. 

Ten percent of high school seniors who had planned to go to a four-year college before the COVID-19 outbreak said they’re likely to change their path because of the pandemic. Four percent said they are very likely to do so, and another 10 percent said it’s too early to say, according to a recent SimpsonScarborough survey.

Many students who were already relying on financial aid to pay for college filled out FAFSAs months ago to see how much aid they could receive. FAFSAs now require students to submit their respective family’s tax information from two years prior. Those who filled out FAFSAs for the 2020-21 school year, for instance, would be including tax information from 2018. 

But a lot can change in two years. Throwing in the economic turmoil caused by COVID-19, many students’ current financial situations don’t accurately reflect those shown in their FAFSAs. 

Understanding this, a growing number of institutions are actively working with admitted students to determine if they’re eligible for additional aid. 

The University of Central Florida (UCF) is directing students who’ve experienced a significant change in income towards a pre-existing platform that allows families to submit requests to have their aid re-evaluated. 

“We will do everything in our power to review those requests in a timely fashion so that students can have that information to make an informed decision about whether or not this is a place that they can afford to attend,” said Gordon Chavis, UCF’s associate vice president of enrollment services. “But this is just so fluid, everybody’s situation is going to be different, so we have to review those on a case by case basis. 

Ohio University is allowing applicants to request and fill out a change of income form so that they know how much aid they could receive before deciding to enroll. 

And the University of Nebraska has just expanded its free tuition program to Nebraska students whose family makes $60,000 or less, effective fall 2020. 

Other institutions, including those in the University of California system, offer financial aid calculators on their websites to help students determine whether the recent changes to their respective family’s income could increase their financial aid package. The UC campuses, however, won’t be working with families to review their financial aid eligibility until summer, after the date by which students must commit to enrollment. 

While not every institution is publicizing such opportunities, schools do have the ability to change how much each family will have to pay. Students should reach out to their schools and file a financial appeal letter if needed.

“The biggest thing that I try to teach (students), now more than ever, is advocacy and how much they need to be advocating for themselves. They need to be calling these universities and be honest and vulnerable about their financial situations right now,” said Jobrina Perez, a Texas-based adviser for College Advising Corps, an organization that helps high-need students.

To help grant students the aid they need, colleges and universities could draw from the $7 billion in emergency grant aid awarded to them through the CARES act. But it’s still uncertain if that $7 billion will be enough to meet all needs, given the amount of students who will likely be requesting more monetary help. 

And since this year’s high school seniors will need extra time to make their college decisions, more than 400 institutions have pushed back their enrollment deposit deadlines from May 1 to most commonly June 1, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Some schools, including UCF, are waiving deposit fees for eligible students. 

Those most affected by the pandemic, though, are having to put off college altogether. Instead of moving into a dorm next fall, like they originally planned to do, these students will have to stay home and get a job so that they can help their families pay bills. 

Overall, FAFSA completion rates are way down compared to years past, said Nicole Hurd, founder and CEO of College Advising Corps. That’s concerning, particularly for low-income and first-generation students, because it means many won’t be attending school next year. 

“If their parents are worried about having enough food or being able to pay their bills, college is not really a priority, and they need to help their families contribute to that income,” said Caitlynn Upton, a Michigan-based adviser for College Advising Corps.

It is also uncertain, at this point, whether campuses will reopen in the fall, leaving high school seniors to wonder if it’s worth it to take on a four-year institution’s tuition if classes will be entirely online. 

“If universities are going to go to online learning in the fall, we’re going to see a lot more students attending community colleges,” said Upton. 

The entire situation has spiked students’ anxiety and dampered their excitement about starting a new chapter in their lives. Not only have they had their senior year and their last few months with their high school friends taken away from them, they have no clear definition of what fall semester is going to look like. 

“I’m a little upset because I don’t know how different everything is going to be after this,” said Carlos. “I’m missing out on what would be one of the most fun parts of high school. And it’s just me stuck in my house not able to see my friends. I guess I would say I’m optimistic about school, but I don’t really know how that is going to be now. There’s just so much uncertainty.” 

Carlos, like many of his peers, hasn’t had the opportunity to tour many colleges, as institutions have shut down their campuses. College visits can be expensive and time-consuming, so many seniors wait to hear which institutions they were admitted to before making any of their college visits.

To make up for this, many institutions have started offering virtual tours online, but they just aren’t the same. 

“I feel like tours kind of help you realize what type of people are on the campuses,” Carlos said.  “But the virtual tours … it’s not as personal, and it doesn’t feel as informative because you’re not really there.” 

Additionally, many high school seniors report a lack of communication as one of the biggest challenges they’re facing. Because of high school closures, some students have lost access to the in-person help they typically get from their college counselors.

And 40 percent of high school seniors who’ve already decided on a school for 2020 report feeling left in the dark by their institutions on how COVID-19 may affect their enrollment, according to the SimpsonScarborough survey. 

Carlos said he, personally, gives colleges and universities a pass for their lack of communication. 

“It’s pretty understood, because I don’t think the colleges really even know what’s going on,” Carlos said. “They don’t know how to react.”

Instead, Carlos said he is more concerned about passing his AP exams, which were moved online and shortened to 45 minutes this year. 

Many students rely on passing AP exams to earn college credit. That way, they could potentially graduate ahead of time and save a few bucks. 

“I take three (AP classes), and I don’t feel prepared at all now because of this whole thing,” Carlos said. “Learning is different, and I don’t feel like as practiced. The whole situation is completely different … I don’t really know what to expect.” 

In that regard, we at The University Network have created a special AP section, which provides details on each specific exam and shares information about available resources for online prep.