Ever since she began high school, 18-year-old Alexis Campbell, a senior at Fayette County High School in Fayetteville, Ga., dreamed of going to college somewhere out of state-possibly New York or Massachusetts. The coronavirus pandemic has forced her to reconsider her options
Alexis is not alone. The COVID-19 crisis and its fallout are prompting many members of the Class of 2020 to rethink their post-high school plans.
Their reasons vary. Some worry about how to pay for tuition amid a gathering recession. For others, it's frustration over the difficulty they're encountering as they try to work with shuttered colleges and universities. Concerns about health risks and uneasiness with the prospect of remote learning play a big part as well.
The result of all this anxiety and uncertainty, experts predict, will be smaller-than-expected freshman classes this fall in colleges and universities across the nation-and the fall-off is expected to be especially sharp for first-generation students and those from low-income families.
Students get detoured every year between the time they're accepted to college and the first day of classes-so much so that the phenomenon has a name, "summer melt." College-going plans of as many as 40 percent of students dissolve in a typical summer melt, according to Reach Higher, an initiative begun by former first lady Michelle Obama. But experts predict this year's melt may be the worst one yet.
Cirkled In, a student portfolio platform, recently surveyed colleges and prospective students on college-going plans for next year. Of the 33 college and university admissions officials who responded, 87 percent said they expected a higher-than-normal melt in the fall. Among the more than 1,100 students polled, 22 percent said the coronavirus crisis has pushed them to rethink their college plans.
"The results that we saw were not surprising but very sobering," said Cirkled In CEO Reetu Gupta said. "COVID is changing the direction of life for some of these kids."
In Alexis's case, the chief worry is her health. She has asthma and the prospect of getting sick far from home has made her anxious.
"Not only do I not know if those schools will be open, but I also have to consider my health," she said. "Some of my colleges haven't extended their deadlines yet and I find it impossible to be able to say that I'll be going to a school when I don't even know if that school will be open.
"Not having colleges to be able to accommodate students at this time has been a real struggle," she added. "The coronavirus has definitely changed the way that I'm even looking at higher education right now."
In Philadelphia, the main concern for 18-year-old Justin Hall, a senior at the Mastery High School campus in Camden, N.J., is money.
Hall was accepted into all the schools he applied to, including his current top picks of Morehouse College, Penn State-University Park, and the University of Virginia.
"The reason I haven't committed yet, however, is because none of those schools have given me a financial aid offer yet." Hall said.
Hall received a full tuition scholarship to Alabama A&M University, a former top school of his, and had plans on visiting the campus earlier this month. But Hall grew less inclined to go after the campus cancelled in-person tours to prevent the spread of the virus.
"A virtual tour just won't give you the vibes that an in-person tour will give you," he said.
Between him and his brother both working essential jobs and his grandparents pitching in to help, Hall and his family are able to manage their household income even though his mother no longer works. Still, Hall said that at this point, where he enrolls in the fall depends primarily on which school offers the most financial aid.
With no definitive end in sight for the pandemic, some colleges are openly preparing for the possibility that they may be forced to turn to remote instruction in the fall. That's a prospect that worries Campbell and other students-even some who are already enrolled as undergraduates.
"I refuse to pay for an education I don't feel I can grasp completely, and I refuse to waste an entire semester of my college life," wrote rising junior Lauren Mun in an opinion essay published in Rutgers University's student newspaper, the Daily Targum. "I would rather wait to attend school normally than continue to attend through my laptop."
Lance Dronkers, a guidance counselor at Mastery Charter Schools, has heard those concerns, especially now as high school students at his school struggle now with their distance-learning classes. He said he has begun suggesting that students opt for local colleges in case the schools can't open in the fall "so as not to pay too much in financial aid for an experience that would be held on online."
For their part, higher education institutions, organizations, and state governments have been scrambling to adjust programming and requirements to better support graduating students whose transitions to college are getting caught up in the COVID bind.
As of this week, nearly every state has relaxed graduation requirements for high school seniors, according to an Education Week analysis. And a growing number of colleges and universities have extended acceptance deadlines to June 1 and are waiving requirements for students to submit SAT or ACT scores.
Drawing on studies showing that text nudges on cellphones can be helpful in staving off summer melt, the Reach Higher Initiative this week rolled out an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot to provide ready answers to students' questions and send reminders of upcoming college registration, financial aid, and enrollment deadlines, which is often where students trip up on the road to college.
"We've been really concerned about what COVID-19 means for some of our most vulnerable students," said Eric Waldo, executive director of Reach Higher. "We're worried about how they might be making their college decisions, how they might be looking at their financial aid offers, how they plan on going to school."
The free chatbot, developed in partnership with the CommonApp, the College Advising Corps, and AdmitHub, is targeting 200,000 low-income, first-generation college goers through the CommonApp. Questions that the chatbot cannot answer on its own will be fielded by the College Advising Corps, which recruits recent college graduates to coach students through the college-going process.
"We know that students are really worried about the future and while not being able to interact with counselors, this will be able to provide them with 24/7 support," Waldo said.
Similarly, the America's Promise Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the conditions of adult success for young people, released guidance earlier this month through their GradNation campaign to assist policymakers, educators, and community leaders in making well-informed decisions to help high school students during this uncertain time.
High schools and colleges all need to support and encourages students to curb what could be a higher than usual summer melt, said Alexandria Walton Radford, the director of the Center for Applied Research in Postsecondary Education at the American Institutes of Research.
"Once you've taken care of food, shelter and mental health, you really want to be doing all you can to make sure students are getting as prepared for college as they can," Radford said.