Counselors’ advice for college-bound students facing coronavirus uncertainty: Keep moving forward

Like many other prospective college students worried about their future during the coronavirus pandemic, Vista Peak Prep senior Jordan Stewart is debating whether he should wait to go to college.

“It’s hard to actually try to think about the future when you’re generally confused and questioning if you’ll even have one,” said Stewart, 18, an Aurora teen who was set on attending college this fall before the nationwide shutdowns.

Knowing students like Stewart are reconsidering whether they should wait to attend college next fall — or are planning to forgo higher education altogether — counselors are rethinking how they advise students, even without having all the answers themselves.

Students are wondering whether college campuses will be safe or even open later this year. Boston University last week became the first U.S. higher education institution to publicly announce plans for delays or cancelations of in-person classes for fall semester if needed, and others could follow. And students and institutions alike face major economic uncertainty, raising questions about financial aid.

Amid these challenges, counselors say they’ve been advising students not to close off college as an option.

“We’re doing lots of listening right now but still advising students to move forward so they have something to look forward to,” said Nathan Cadena, Denver Scholarship Foundation chief operating officer. The foundation provides resources and support for predominantly low-income and first-generation Denver students entering and attending college.

Will students want to attend college in the fall?

It’s hard to pinpoint all of the challenges students will face next fall and beyond. Much will depend on when the U.S. can slow the pace of COVID-19 infections.

Stewart said his counselor is helping guide him and calm his fears about college. He said they talk at least twice a week.

Nonetheless, the uncertainty gives him pause.

Inside Higher Ed recently noted that a survey found one in 10 high school seniors is likely to reconsider college as a result of the outbreak. Another 4% are very likely to do so, according to the report.

Many who work to promote college access fear that students — especially those from low-income backgrounds — who take time off after high school might not ever make it to a higher education institution.

Stewart said he’s stressed for weeks over his decision to attend college.

“The fact of not knowing what will happen right after, or when it will actually stop, is kind of making me not want to leave my family yet because not only are they going to be scared for my safety, but I’m scared for theirs,” Stewart said. “I also have to figure out what is going to be best for me financially.”

University of Colorado Denver Professor Scott McLeod, whose research includes school leadership, said he’s heard many college administrators across the country are worried about whether students will show up in the fall.

“I think you’re going to see a set of conditions in which colleges and universities are going to be as flexible as possible to get people in the door,” McLeod said.

Navigating a remote environment

The prospect of admissions flexibility doesn’t make the decision to attend any easier for students, especially when counselors can no longer meet face-to-face with students.

Shaleena Gaskin, STRIVE Prep’s senior director of college access, said her goal is to ensure students have the right paperwork to enter college, although connecting can be difficult remotely.

“I don’t want them to say because we are remote that they didn’t receive this support or didn’t understand this award letter,” Gaskin said. “I don’t want that to be the issue why they didn’t decide to go to college. I want them to make a decision based on what’s right for them.”

The coronavirus has also disrupted how student decisions are made in choosing a college, including the cancellation of school visits.

Renae Bellew, the Denver Scholarship Foundation’s senior programs director, said her organization has also changed the way they interact with colleges due to work-from-home orders.

How to communicate with colleges has changed during the pandemic, she said.

“So we are kind of learning and then having to teach and communicate to students what those systems are,” Bellew said.

A search for opportunities and concerns for the future

There are silver linings amid the shutdowns, including counselors having more access to parents.

“We kind of have an opportunity with an audience that we know is home,” Cadena said. “We are reinforcing messages to parents so they can participate in the decision-making process.”

Counselors have also needed to be creative during this time.

Jefferson County Schools, for example, is hosting online financial aid workshops and tutorials, remotely workshopping scholarship applications, and running tutorials for students, said Sonya Sallak, the district’s counselor coordinator.

Yet while counselors can advise students in the short term, they’re having trouble quelling long-term concerns.

A recent Association of American Colleges and Universities survey showed college leaders expect “serious disruption ahead in the fall.”

Many college students are pushing back on paying full tuition for a diminished college experience. It’s unclear how schools will handle tuition in the future, and how they will make up for lost revenues and pay for overhead, such as upkeep of buildings.

Public universities in Colorado and elsewhere could be hit by budget cuts as state legislators struggle to balance the books. That could lead to tuition hikes that would leave students and families carrying more of the burden. Tuition in Colorado already makes up 71% of total educational revenue at public colleges.

“And I think right now there’s just a lot of unknowns around how much financial aid there will be for students,” Bellew said. “We know that different state budgets are going to be hit. That means some institutions’ budgets are going to be hit.”

Gaskin said she’s advised students it’s OK if they decide to hold off on college at this time. But she said he’s ensuring those students are connected to alumni and resources so a break from school doesn’t become permanent.

Many of the students at STRIVE would be first-generation college students and are among those who often have trouble accessing college or could be hurt by taking time off, she said.

The goal for counselors, Gaskin said, is to ensure students someday fulfill their dream of reaching college.