The Coronavirus Crisis is Changing College Plans

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Brian O'Connell

By Brian O'Connell

April 3, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc across the globe causing job loss and financial instability. One lesser-known impact of the crisis is taking place at kitchen tables all over America, as high school seniors huddle with their parents to weight their suddenly problematic college options for this fall.

According to a new study from the Art & Science Group, a Baltimore, Md.-based higher education consulting firm, one in six high-school seniors have largely given up their plans to attend college this year. Additionally, three in five seniors say that while they will follow through on college plans, they doubt they’ll get into their “first choice” school.

Most high-school seniors who opt to stay away from their chosen school say they will take a gap year, enroll at college as part-time students, work full-time – if they can find a job in a sliding economy. About 21% of students surveyed said their top school would “no longer be affordable” while 12% told A&SG that family health concerns were enough to keep them away from college next semester.

Coronavirus Impacts Colleges

The fallout from a decline of incoming freshman on college campuses this fall would hit schools at a time when enrollments are already declining due to demographic reasons.

“If this phenomenon contuse or worsens, it will have far-reaching consequences on college enrollment this fall and possibly have a substantial impact of higher education for years to come,” A&SG report states in its new report entitled Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on College-Going High School Seniors, released on March 25th.

High school student surveyed say there are several issues that could keep them away from campus this fall, with missed admissions deadlines, economic disruptions and safety reasons leading the list. The scenario is so problematic that two-thirds of high school seniors are “currently concerned they’ll have to change their first-choice school due to COVID-19,” the report noted.

Instead, survey respondents say they are more likely to switch schools that are closer to home, less expensive, and are “more familiar,” A&SG stated.

Mounting Challenges

The report also has some clear suggestions for colleges struggling to engage with high-school students at what normally be a high-volume period for both parties.

For instance, March and April are high-volume times for college visits, but with many states in lockdown mode, students and families can’t travel and participate and campus visits. According to the A&SG survey, 58% of student respondents have already cancelled their campus visits.

Downbeat scenarios like low or no campus visits have colleges changing recruitment policies on the fly, with the fall 2020 semester on the line.

“Institutions will need to remain flexible in the admissions process, communicate creatively, and provide as much clarity as possible on what colleges are doing in response to COVID-19 and the implications those actions will have on the admissions process,” A&SG noted. “This will have to be accomplished in an environment that remains full of uncertainty and in a way that compensates for a lack of in-person contact and in the face of significant financial challenges that could impact college financial aid.”

The primary problem is that U.S. colleges and universities are facing significant “recruitment challenges” amidst the burgeoning coronavirus crisis, the group notes.

“These findings are pretty stark,” noted Craig Goebel, a principal at the Art & Science Group. “They might be under representing the potential impact of what COVID-19 could be once all is said and done this fall.”

What You Can Do

Fortunately, families are able to appeal to get additional financial aid if there was a change in income or have unreimbursed medical expenses.

Once you have exhausted any college savings, grants, scholarships and other federal aid, if you decide you need to borrow student loans, opt for federal student loans first. Federal student loans have better benefits than private student loans. They often have a lower interest rate and a possibility for subsidized (paid) interest while you’re in school and during deferment. Federal loans also have better repayment options, including potential for loan forgiveness, payments based on your income and generous deferment options in times of economic hardship and unemployment.

If you need to borrow private student loans, shop around to find the best lender. Compare interest rates available, loan terms (how long you have to repay), any perks offered (such as deferment options) and reputation.

Do everything you can to reduce what you need to borrow. Keep applying for scholarships, work while you’re in school, choose an affordable college and limit spending to essential items.

A good place to start:

See the best 529 plans, personalized for you