With so much uncertainty around how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will progress through the fall, many college students have a difficult choice to make: Is it safe to head to campus for the next semester, and for those campuses that won’t open for in-person instruction, is college worth it at all? Higher education institutions, much like the states in which they’re located, are far from a monolith. As of press time, of 780 colleges tracked by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 63% were planning for in-person classes, 8% planned to go totally online, 17% had proposed a hybrid model, 4.6% are holding out for more information, and the other 7% are considering a range of scenarios. According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it's still very risky for colleges and universities to proceed with full-size classes and events but smaller, socially distanced classes or a hybrid model might be more effective in limiting the spread of disease. Of course, virtual-only models pose the least risk.
That means, for students and their parents, deciding whether to proceed with their college plans is neither easy nor straightforward. “We are all operating under uncertainty, and colleges and universities have just as many crystal balls as governors,” explains John Pryor, founder of higher education research firm Pryor Education Insights.
Education is expensive
And the fact is, college isn’t getting any cheaper. The average cost of one academic year at a four-year public college or university was $9,037 for in-state students in 2017–18, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The average in-state tuition for community college came in at $3,243 that year, although both price tags vary widely state-to-state.
But the sticker price doesn’t necessarily reflect what students actually pay. In 2018, 84% of American undergraduates at four-year public institutions and 90% at private ones got tuition discounts. But because financial aid is recalculated every year, students can’t necessarily rely on that aid entirely. By 2019, overall student debt had reached $1.5 trillion in the third quarter of 2019, an increase of $20 billion over the previous quarter, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Don’t expect a discount
The pandemic has had a devastating impact on colleges’ operating budgets, as they pivoted to online learning extremely quickly, not to mention refunded students’ dining, parking, and housing costs. Many are also seeing a decrease in enrollment, and associated tuition for the fall. A recent report from the National College Attainment Network shows that 350,000 fewer students have filed their Free Application for Federal Student Aid — the federal financial aid application form — than at this time last year. Applications from students from families making less than $25,000 are also down 8%.
“Unfortunately, a college that is used to face-to-face instruction and a campus full of buildings to maintain has more expenses going online, not less,” explains Pryor. “They can’t afford to cut tuition if they have an online fall semester.”
Weigh the cost vs experience
As students decide whether to go ahead with their college plans, it’s important to think about what college means to you – and what you’re willing to pay for. Much of the traditional college experience takes place outside of the classroom. Dorm life, sporting events, and on-campus activities all make up a vital part of many students’ decision to attend a particular university. If colleges aren’t offering those options this fall, that’s a significant factor.
“In general, we are advising students to go ahead with their plans to attend college. In some cases, however, we ask students to take additional courses at an online community college so they can use the time gained by not traveling to accelerate their education,” explains Venkates Swaminathan founder and CEO of LifeLaunchr, a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “We are also asking students to choose colleges with greater concern for the cost, which means that some of our students who have been accepted to very selective private colleges have nevertheless chosen their state school.”
More expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better
That’s not a bad idea, even in normal times. Many students will shell out to attend the “best” school they get into, even if it means accruing more loans. But research shows it’s not so much where you go, but how you engage with your education. Pryor conducted a study with Gallup that looked at college grads’ job engagement and wellbeing, and found no difference between those who attended Ivy League schools or top-ranked universities versus those who chose a more affordable option.
“What did make a difference was if you had certain experiences in college,” explained Pryor. “That could be at an Ivy, or the public university an hour away, or the community college in your town. You do not need to go to an expensive ‘fancy’ college to have great outcomes in your life.”
If students do decide to stay in-state or take courses at a community college for the next semester, do your best to make sure the credits will transfer if you intend to head to another institution later on.
Consider taking a gap year
Some students have thought about taking a semester or a year off, to see what education looks like further down the road. Swaminathan urges students to consider what they’ll do during that time off. “The challenge with a gap year is that many of the things students have traditionally done during a gap year are not viable,” he explains. “This year, gap year activities are being organized online to help students gain valuable personal, social, and career skills that will help them in college.” To get the most out of a gap year, carefully consider what you or your child might do instead, if you decide to go that route.
“When it comes down to it, it depends on the level of risk you are willing to take and the precautions your school is taking,” Pryor concludes. “There are many many different possibilities. But will you be behind if you don’t go to that expensive college a few states away? No. In fact, you might be better off.”
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