Story by Larry Altman
College Decision Day arrived Friday, triggering celebrations in homes across Southern California as high school seniors reached the normal deadline to pick their universities, but creating equal amounts of uncertainty as the COVID-19 pandemic placed the Fall semester in limbo.
Throughout the nation, parents ready to spend thousands of dollars on their children’s education and housing don’t know whether their money will be well-spent, whether stay-at-home orders will turn freshmen college experiences into remote learning, and if their children will be safe heading off to school.
Students, meanwhile, who lost out on high school activities like the prom and graduation ceremonies, won’t know if they can move into dorms, meet their professors and sit with their new classmates for perhaps weeks.
“It is absolutely nerve racking,” said Madi Marks, who recently notified Texas Christian University in Fort Worth that she intends to be a Horned Frog this fall. Marks’ father, Justin, sent her housing deposit on Thursday over the Internet.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for so long,” said Madi, a senior at a West Ranch High School in Stevenson Ranch. “It’s a little disappointing to hear there’s a possibility we can’t even go in August after everything we’ve worked for.”
Students accepted to attend more than one university had to reach a decision on where they planned to go by May 1, although the COVID-19 outbreak sent the college admissions process into chaos. Students were unable to visit campuses and many are still waiting for decisions on financial aid.
“Some places have extended their deadlines to June 1, but I would say almost all places are likely to be flexible if you have a really significant reason that you need to extend,” said Patti Demoff, an independent college counselor who assists students and families in the college application process. Demoff suggested parents’ unemployment, finances and illness as reasons.
“There are going to be some whose financial situation has changed significantly and they are not ready to make a decision,” Demoff said. “This year flexibility is really the name of the game for the schools.”
Demoff said none of her clients have decided to take a year off. Even if they did, what would they do? Jobs won’t be available for 18-year-olds with so many adults out of work and travel is out of the question, she said.
Through Friday, more than 1.1 million COVID-19 cases have been reported in the United States. Nearly 65,000 people have died. Shutdowns and stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread have cost millions of jobs and sent the economy into turmoil. Federal, state and local officials are trying to figure out how to reopen the economy safely. Universities, especially those in towns where the economy relies on the college, are examining how they can bring students back to campus.
In an EAB survey that asked college officials in March, “Are you concerned about yielding your fall 2020 class,” 43% picked “5” and 32% answered “4” on a 1-5 scale with 5 being the highest.
In recent days, colleges have sent emails to prospective students and their parents with subject lines: “Exciting News About this Fall” (Baylor University); “Our Commitment to Your Child” (University of San Francisco); and “Our Plan for Fall 2020” (Syracuse University.)
“I know there is so much to consider as you weigh which college your child will attend – especially now when, along with everything else you have a global pandemic to contend with,” April Crabtree, assistant vice provost for undergraduate admission at University of San Francisco, wrote in her letter. “There is no roadmap for decisions at times like this. How can you help your student make the right choice when so much is uncertain?”
In their letters, colleges warned that housing might not be guaranteed, and some instruction might be remote. Syracuse said it was “cautiously optimistic” it would resume instruction in the fall. Loyola Marymount University in Westchester said it anticipated in-person instruction in the fall, “provided it is safe and aligns with guidance from public health authorities.”
Claremont-McKenna is investigating “creative ways” to get students on campus this year, including teaching outdoors, a spokeswoman said.
California State University’s 23 schools have not announced fall plans, but Cal State Northridge said it is awaiting word from government and health officials of how to move forward. UCLA has suggested its 2020-2021 academic year might be delivered remotely. Tuition and fees will not be refunded no matter what happens, and housing was not guaranteed.
The uncertainty creates stress for parents. Lisa Niedermeier’s 17-year-old son, Ken Bruinsslot, who is completing his education at the California Academy of Mathematics and Science School in Carson, said she wants him to enjoy a full university experience. Ken recently chose UCLA from among the six schools that accepted him. His mother and father have only sent $250 so far, but Niedermeier is not excited to pay $18,000 if her son’s education is going to start in his Torrance home.
“I don’t want him to go to college online and have it feel exactly like the last four months of high school,” Niedermeier said.
Ken said he is not opposed to starting his education with virtual classes and hopes UCLA officials reschedule freshmen orientation and other summer events. He said he has been excited about college since middle school and is looking forward to dorm life, living among his peers and close to campus.
“I’m not worried,” Ken said. “I know my mom is worried.”
Madi’s father, Justin Marks, said her tuition and housing could run from $35,000 to $50,000, and he wants his money to pay for a real college experience – academics along with Greek life, football and basketball games and more.
“We are hoping things will ease up in restrictions so we can move her in August,” Justin Marks said. “Right now everything we are hearing is positive and they will be moving forward with a normal move in, but there might be some additional restrictions in place to make sure that students aren’t impacted in an unhealthy way…Starting her college career from home, paying for online schooling, which we are praying is not going to happen, that is a tough thing to go through.”
Earlier this week, attorneys filed two class action lawsuits against the CSU and UC systems, demanding colleges refund prorated portions of students’ campus fees following closures in March that sent them home.
The lawsuits contend students no longer in on-campus housing should not have to pay for health facilities, student centers and other instruction-related activities they are not using.
Some colleges have returned funds to parents. Claremont-McKenna, for example, refunded room and board for current students on a prorated basis, but has not refunded tuition, spokeswoman Gilien Silsby said.
At Downtown Los Angeles Magnets School, the usual May 1 “College Signing Day” program – where hundreds of seniors normally take to the basketball court to announce their college choices – was postponed until next week. College counselor Lynda McGee’s students, who reside in areas around downtown Los Angeles, have been accepted all over the nation, including several elite schools.
For many, COVID-19 is just another obstacle to overcome.
“I think a lot of my kids have learned how to develop resilience through life’s ups and down that have already occurred way prior to the pandemic,” McGee said. “They’ve had job losses for parents. They’ve had unexpected moves… This is in a lot of ways just another one of those things. It’s just that everyone is experiencing it together.”
McGee’s students come from many disadvantaged families where finances were a problem even before the pandemic struck. On Thursday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said COVID-19 has created an “agonizing dilemma” for many students unsure about leaving home because of their families’ financial situations and because many are necessary income earners. Some students, he said, have put off going to school.
In response, the city and an alliance of education, business, labor, government and other leaders have established a website to provide counseling and advice.
“Hear me when I say that we don’t want COVID-19 to take lives,” Garcetti said, “but we also don’t want it to steal your dreams.”