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The Tutt Library at Colorado College. Photo Credit: Jennifer Coombes.

High School Seniors Plan for College—in the Middle of a Pandemic

Choosing which college to attend is hard enough. The class of 2020 is making those decisions with the added uncertainty and stress of a global health crisis.

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In February, it was a slow day at work when London Winslow’s phone dinged with a new email. The combination of sender (Oregon State University) and subject line (“We have something to tell you”) caused the senior at George Washington High School in Denver to tremble.

Winslow nervously swiped open the message, and then immediately burst into tears—the happy kind. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I got in,’” remembers the Aurora teen. Oregon State was one of Winslow’s top-choice schools, and after visiting the campus in Corvallis, Oregon, later that month, the Colorado native was convinced.

But that was all back in February—before coronavirus. Now, Winslow is no longer certain she’ll become a Beaver this fall.

London Winslow, a recent graduate of George Washington High School in Denver, will attend Oregon State University this fall, but only if classes are held in person. Credit: Jaime Winslow

“It’s kinda hard when both of your parents are self-employed, and they didn’t get to work for eight weeks,” she says. Winslow’s mom owns a Denver-area salon, and her dad operates a food truck, two businesses hurt by the statewide stay-at-home order.

If OSU’s fall semester begins online, which Winslow worries could happen, she’ll defer her acceptance and instead likely enroll in online classes at Metropolitan State University of Denver or a local community college. Her reasoning: With family finances recently impacted, why pay out-of-state tuition for virtual learning?

Winslow is one of thousands of Colorado high schoolers currently navigating college decisions like this during the COVID-19 era. Many applied to schools, received acceptance letters, and in some cases made commitments well before “coronavirus” became part of our everyday vernacular. But the drastic, devastating shifts ushered in by the global health crisis have reshaped plans for students across the state.

Like Jalen Brown. Earlier this year, the senior at Castle View High School in Castle Rock was accepted to Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The school offered Brown a financial aid package totaling about $40,000, plus another grant award. The 17-year-old was enticed, but wanted to visit campus before committing. So in February, his mom, Carmen Jackson-Brown, began planning a four-day vacation during Brown’s spring break in mid-March. Then, coronavirus started spreading across the country, travel restrictions emerged, and the trip was axed.

Jalen Brown, a senior at Castle View High School in Castle Rock, will attend the University of Colorado Boulder this fall with plans to transfer to Nova Southeastern University in Florida in two years. Photo Credit: Carmen Jackson-Brown

Not wanting to enroll at a college that he’d never toured—and determining that moving to Florida, where there are a high number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, wasn’t the safest option, especially for a teen with asthma—Brown elected to enroll at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) instead. Currently, he plans to complete two years there and then transfer to Nova Southeastern, says Jackson-Brown.

For Brown, staying in Colorado is the practical choice, but it could also be the costlier one. In-state tuition at CU is more expensive than the price of Nova Southeastern with financial aid. (Jackson-Brown says the family is still waiting to hear how much financial aid CU can offer.)  “It’s really heartbreaking to not be able to take advantage of that,” says Jackson-Brown, who hopes a similar financial aid package will be offered when Brown re-applies to Nova Southeastern.

As of early May, the number of incoming freshmen at CU is tracking slightly higher than last year, says Clark Brigger, executive director of admissions. But Brigger surmises that this year, because of the pandemic, the university will experience more “summer melt,” i.e., a dip in enrollment numbers that colleges typically see every year due to students changing their minds after submitting a deposit. Come fall, Brigger anticipates the freshman class will be “roughly” the same size as last year’s 7,113-member cohort. So far, the percentage of committed in-state students seems to be holding steady at 55 percent.

But those figures could change depending on how the pandemic plays out. If CU starts its fall semester with virtual classes, Brigger surmises more students may choose to defer their enrollment. The number of incoming freshmen who have already elected to push back their enrollment is tracking about 20 to 30 percent higher than last year at this time, he says.

At Colorado College (CC), typically 10 to 12 percent of the 550- to 575-member freshman class takes a full gap year, and another four percent takes a gap semester. Deferment requests for the upcoming fall term aren’t higher than usual at this point, but Mark Hatch, vice president for enrollment at CC, predicts that if the school announces virtual learning in the fall, those numbers could climb.

According to Hatch, the number of in-state students in CC’s incoming freshman class is up about 75 percent from last year. Hatch surmises that more than half of this uptick can be attributed to The Colorado Pledge, a pilot initiative the university announced last year that promises varying levels of financial assistance for students from Colorado families making $200,000 a year or less. But another portion could be attributed to families’ concerns over students moving far away during the pandemic. “Parents were less silent in saying, ‘If something happens, if you get sick, if we have a grandparent who gets sick, we want you closer to home,'” says Hatch.

The University of Denver (DU) is currently on track to meet its freshman class enrollment goal of 1,400 students, says Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment. Colorado School of Mines, on the other hand, is “a little bit behind where we were last year at this time with deposits,” says Lori Kester, associate provost of enrollment management. Enrollment numbers are also down at Pikes Peak Community College, according to Yuri Grijalva-Perry, bilingual admissions counselor at the school.

As students weigh their options, many decisions hinge on whether colleges would likely be able to offer fall classes in person. Christian Munoz, a 17-year-old recent grad of DSST: Byers High School, considered deferring his enrollment to Regis University this fall when the possibility of online classes arose. His rationale: “I’m not going to waste money to be going to school in my room and be plugged into a computer all day,” he says. But his mom urged him to stay the course, asking: “If you don’t go to school in the fall, what would you do instead?”

 

Christian Munoz, a recent graduate of DSST: Byers High School in Denver, plans to attend Regis University this fall, where he will study political science. Photo Credit: Reyna Munoz

In mid-May, Munoz received word that Regis intends to host in-person classes this fall. “It gives me hope that they’re doing their best to try to keep campuses open,” he says.

Another deciding factor for students is cost, especially as the state experiences record-high unemployment rates. “We are absolutely fielding all kinds of calls from families that are asking us to take another look at their aid packaging because their situation has changed,” says CU’s Brigger. When asked if he thought that CU would be able to accommodate most of its financial aid appeals, Brigger says that “each individual situation is different,” but added “we do the best that we can for Colorado residents.” Last week, the University of Colorado Board of Regents approved a zero percent increase in tuition and fees for the 2020-’21 academic year.

DU has also been processing more appeals—both for merit aid and need-based financial aid—than in years past, says Rinehart. “That’s common at every college and university that I’ve connected with in the past few weeks,” he adds. Because of limited budgets, “we’re not able to match what a family has lost, but we’re able, I think in many cases, to offset the loss,” says Rinehart. “We’re being very flexible and trying to help them as much as we can.”

Twins Noah and Bella Solomon feel grateful for the financial aid they received. Noah, who recently graduated from DSST: Byers, is going to Cornell University on a Daniels Fund scholarship. And Bella, who finished her senior year at East High School in Denver, will attend Johns Hopkins University with a “very substantial financial package.”

“Some of my friends are considering taking a gap year because they’re full-pay and they don’t want to pay, like, $75,000 just to be online,” says Bella. “But we’re in a good position that luckily the money does not play a huge role.”

Twins Noah and Bella Solomon of Denver plan to attend Cornell University and Johns Hopkins University, respectively, this fall. Photo Credit: Emily Solomon

Still, Bella says that hearing her peers discuss the possibility of a gap year in light of the pandemic put the idea in her brain for the first time. Currently, she still plans to start college in the fall, but says she realizes now, more than ever, that “it’s important to keep an open mind and just keep all of my options open.”

Even if the pandemic hasn’t altered students’ plans for the fall, it’s still impacting how they’re feeling about college. For some, the possibility of having to start college remotely feels like yet another disappointment following the cancellation of prom, graduation, and other long-anticipated senior year activities.

“I was getting excited to go [to college] and even though I didn’t really get to have the rest of my senior year, everyone was saying, ‘Well, at least you’ll have a great freshman year,’” says Bella. “But now that it’s looking like it might start online, it’s kind of unfortunate that we all got excited for it, and now it’s another thing getting cancelled.”

These disappointments can be tough for parents, too. “The kids just not having the experience that they should have with these major milestones is just sort of disheartening,” says Jackson-Brown, whose older son, Ryan, had to move home in March and finish his freshman year at the University of Arizona remotely.

Despite all the uncertainty right now, Winslow remains enthusiastic about college and hopeful that she’ll be able to attend OSU this fall. Even this morning, I was looking at YouTube videos about what essentials you need for your dorm room,” she says. She also recently received her roommate assignment. “Her name is Alex, and we’ve been talking, and we’re super excited.”

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