College and COVID: 4 Reality Checks for the Fall Semester

Updated: April 9, 2020

Will things be back to "business as usual" in time for the start of fall semester? Wouldn't we all love to know ...

The fact is, there are many, many questions about what's going to happen in the next few months. We know our readers are hungry for answers. While we don't have a crystal ball, we are starting to see some likely scenarios emerge.

Here, we’ll share our best advice for how to navigate this confusing and uncertain time. We’ll follow that up with some FAQs based on questions that respondents submitted in our recent survey COVID 19: How the Pandemic is Impacting College Decisions.

If you’re a graduating high school senior, a current college student,  or a parent of either, here are the top four things that we recommend right now:

#1 Try to get more financial aid

#2 Use this time to apply for scholarships like crazy

#3 Take this opportunity to vet your college of choice through a new lens

#4 Start considering whether you need a Plan B

Also be sure to see our section on Fall 2020 FAQs.

#1 Try to Get More Financial Aid

There are two important things to know about financial aid right now.

  1. Obviously, many people have experienced a change in income since filling out the FAFSA last fall. If that’s true for you, you can and should appeal your financial aid award right away. Even under normal circumstances, many schools will re-evaluate your financial aid award if your family’s income decreases for certain reasons. Learn more about how to appeal here.

  2. Schools may be more likely to offer additional financial assistance even if you haven’t experienced a drop in income. Reason: Many institutions are concerned about a decrease in fall enrollment numbers, especially smaller, private institutions, as noted in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. Remember, all colleges, even non-profit institutions, are businesses. Getting you to matriculate in your freshman year means that you’ll be more likely to return in subsequent years, ensuring a multi-year income stream for the school. Institutions may be more willing than usual to sweeten the pot.

#2 Use This Time to Apply for Scholarships Like Crazy

Truth time: Most people are not operating at their normal levels of productivity at the moment. Adjusting to the “new normal” while processing an unrelenting and scary news cycle is a lot to handle. We can all be forgiven for taking our eyes off the ball for a moment.

However, be aware that you can use this time to your advantage. While everyone else is distracted, you can apply for scholarships and enjoy potentially less competition than you'd normally face. If it’s hard to focus right now, we recommend using the Pomodoro Method to knock out those applications as quickly as possible.

Remember, there are many, many sources of scholarships beyond your high school guidance office. Check our Nitro Scholarship Database as a starting point. (Psst … right now we have over 500 active scholarships listed.)

We also offer a $2,000 scholarship every month — and your parent or guardian can apply as well, so you can double your chances. Apply here. And if you don’t win this time, apply again next month!

If you’re worried about getting letters of recommendation from teachers, take a deep breath. You certainly won’t be the only applicant faced with this challenge. If possible, reach out to teachers and guidance counselors over email. Chances are, they’ll be more than happy to help you if they’re able. If you’re not able to secure recommendations from the usual sources, don’t be shy about branching out. Let us repeat: You’re not the only person facing unusual challenges this year. Scholarship committees are likely to be understanding if you have to seek references elsewhere and, in fact, they may just reward your perseverance.

See also: College Admissions Expert Offers 5 Tips to Gain Advantage During School Closures

#3 Take the Opportunity to Vet Your College of Choice Through a New Lens

Strangely, the pandemic has created an opportunity for students to view colleges through a very unique lens. Viewing how your prospective schools are handling this current crisis is a useful window into what kind of “student experience” you may have if you attend. Searching for your school on social media is a great place to start.

Many schools have social media accounts for different academic areas, departments, and extra-curricular activities. For example, Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania has different Twitter accounts for residence life, new student orientation, football, dining, and more.

But don’t stop at the school’s official accounts. The truly interesting info may require a bit of detective work, but that effort is definitely worth your time. Search for the school name and follow people who have mentioned it, or look for hashtags associated with the school. That way, you’ll be more plugged in to what current students have to say.

Consider questions like:

  • Even though most schools are still (understandably) scrambling to create formal plans for all kinds of things, do current students seem satisfied with the level of communication they’re experiencing in the interim?
  • How is the school handling requests for prorated refunds for room and board or canceled classes?
  • How has the school handled special circumstances, such as work-study or requirements for labs, practicums, or externships.

If you haven’t had a chance to tour campuses yet or you’d like a second look, be aware that colleges are bending over backward to put out online content to showcase their building, grounds, and amenities. Check schools’ websites for the latest or see what you can dig up YouTube.

#4 Start Considering Whether You Need a Plan B

Listen, we know no one wants to hear this, but distance learning may be a real possibility for the fall. (Sorry!) As this point, very, very few institutions have formally announced whether the fall semester will proceed as planned. 

What’s the most-likely scenario? Here are a few things to consider based on current conditions:

  • Schools are aware that the “college experience” is a selling point. They don’t want to risk losing students because of campus closures if they don’t have to. 

  • Each school has very specific variables to consider when deciding to open campuses, and some have more to lose than others. For example, we are starting to hear that some schools with larger percentages of international students are strongly considering plans to start the fall semester entirely online. If international students are unable to travel or procure visas by the fall, they may enroll elsewhere, as recently discussed in this Bloomburg article.

  • Schools that typically pull from a less geographically diverse area may more likely to open physical campuses if they can. However, they will certainly want reasonable assurances that they can do so without putting the health and safety of their students and staff at risk.

  • Keep in mind that schools of every size in every location are struggling to handle pro-rated refunds for canceled classes and room and board. They’re probably not eager to repeat the experience. No doubt, the spring 2020 semester has been an expensive one for most institutions. Schools are most certainly weighing the financial ramifications of future decisions.

What does that mean for students? If you’re uncertain about your plans for the fall, it’s worth spending some time pondering these questions:

  • What is my motivation for selecting my school of choice? If campus life outweighs academics, how will I feel if I have to go to a distance-learning model for a semester?
  • If my college costs are not fully funded by my parents, scholarships, savings, or other means, do I feel comfortable using student loans to pay for distance learning at my preferred school?
  • Are there options for additional financial aid at my school of choice?
  • If I’m depending on work-study to fund my fall tuition, will I still have that option in a distance-learning scenario?
  • If my campus should close part-way through the semester, will I be able to get home/ have someplace else to stay? What are the costs associated with traveling back home unexpectedly?
  • If my campus should close after the semester starts, do I have a reasonable expectation of getting a refund for my room and board? If living off-campus, do I have a reasonable expectation of being able to break my lease without financial penalty?
  • If I knew right now that the fall semester would be executed in a distance-learning model, would a different school make more financial or logistical sense? (Use our Nitroscore calculator to get a better sense of how college costs may impact future student loan debt repayment.)

Will the pandemic have any impact on college acceptance rates?

Believe it or not, this is one area where the pandemic may be to your advantage.

As we mentioned above, many schools are concerned that their enrollment numbers may suffer due to the pandemic. The Wall Street Journal reports that a number of schools are increasing their acceptance rates to offset potential losses from students who aren't able to attend school in the fall.

The upshot: Some of your “reach” schools may have just moved a bit closer to your grasp.

Will colleges hold in-person admission events and orientation?

Oh, how we wish we could just say “Yes, of course!” and move on. We know that visiting schools and attending orientation is the often the kickoff to living the college experience.

Obviously, each school is going to make decisions on a case-by-case basis based on the conditions in their area. Thankfully, we recently uncovered a helpful tool to track the status of on-campus events and orientations.

However, it’s wise to double-check the status of any event before making travel plans. Be sure to check directly with a school before assuming an event is happening.

Is May 1 still Decision Day? Are deposits still due on May 1?

Schools are aware that potential students are facing extreme disruption this year. As a result, many have pushed back their deadlines for students to accept their admission offers. The Washington Post is keeping a running list here.

The Wall Street Journal reports that over 200 schools have extended their deposit deadlines past May 1. With so many schools forced to cancel or postpone in-person events during which they'd normally collect deposits, some are giving prospective students a little more leeway.

Again, you may also use this helpful tool to check the status of decision deadlines, admissions events, and deposit due dates.

Will students be able to move into student housing?

Unfortunately, our answer to this question is a non-answer. At this point, it’s hard to predict because we simply do not know the trajectory of the pandemic.

However, we can say colleges have a vested interest in having dorms and student housing up and running for two reasons:

  1. They know that living in a dorm is a key component of the “college experience” and, therefore, is a big draw for incoming students.
  2. They make a lot of money on room and board.

With all that in mind, though, no school wants to be in the position of putting students’ health and safety at risk. Much will depend on when the pandemic peaks in the U.S., and whether or not it’s predicted to resurge in the fall.

See tip #4 above for more insight into this question.

Will I be able to start college in the fall if I was unable to finish my senior year due to school closures?

This is an evolving question but, at this point, we’d advise that you shouldn’t lose too much sleep over it.

Michigan, as one of the first states to announce that schools will not reopen this term, has announced that seniors will graduate as-scheduled as long as they were on-track to graduate before school closures — even if those students are unable to participate in distance learning, should their district offer it.

Other states and school districts are likely to follow this example rather than disrupt the 2020-2021 school year by making students make up missed requirements in the fall.

Colleges have recently begun issuing additional guidance that acknowledges the profound disruption so many students are experiencing at the moment. For example, Harvard University just issued a directive that incoming students will not be penalized for completing classes on a pass/fail basis.

Should I delay starting college?

While there are many personal considerations that go into answering this question, there’s no reason to delay starting your college education in the fall if you’re able to. There are a few compelling reasons for this.

College is still a good investment. According to recent research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, bachelor’s-degree holders make an average of $78,000 per year, compared to $45,000 for those who only hold a high school diploma. College is an excellent way to increase your lifetime earning potential. 

The job market may be disrupted in the fall. There are no historical models that provide a reliable picture of what the U.S. or global economy may look like in the fall. With so many businesses shuttered during the pandemic, it’s hard to predict which industries will face an uphill recovery and which will thrive. Current record-breaking unemployment levels mean that the job market is likely to be flooded after life returns to normal. Unless you have a specialized skill set, taking a semester off to work and save may not provide the certainty that it would under usual circumstances.

Remember the point of college: To prepare for your future. Keep in mind that your education is the main reason you decided to attend college in the first place. While the fall semester may not look exactly as you envisioned it, there’s no reason to put your future on hold because of this disruption. This, too, shall pass.

You’re not “missing” anything because everyone is in the same boat. Forget FOMO. The fact is, the Class of 2020 is going to go down in history for being the first (and hopefully the only) group to finish high school and start college under these circumstances. You’re all in it together. Sure, it can be disappointing. But it can also be an opportunity. Facing adversity can help build resilience, foster creativity, and prompt the re-examination of old models that no longer serve us.

You, the Class of 2020, are rewriting history right now as you’re living it. You don’t have to let this uncertain time derail your futures. Instead, rise to the occasion and show the world what you’re made of.

We’re with you. And we wish you all the luck in the world.

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