by Diane Klein
1. No school will be “back to normal” in fall 2020.
No one knows whether colleges and universities will offer face-to-face instruction in the fall, or whether they will stay open if they do. No one knows whether dorms and cafeterias will reopen, or whether team sports will practice and play.
It’s that simple. No one knows. Schools that decide to reopen may not be able to stay that way. A few may decide, soon, not even to try. Others may put off the decision for as long as possible — but you can make your decision now.
Even if some face-to-face instruction resumes, no one knows if it will last for the whole semester or all year. If there’s anything worse than resigning yourself to a freshman year spent online, it would be moving across country or across town, into a dorm room or an apartment — only to have to move out weeks or months later, with no guarantee of any refund, with further disruption and dislocation. Or worse yet — going back to school, only to have a family member fall ill, or to get sick yourself, when COVID-19 makes a resurgence, as it almost certainly will until there is a vaccine — which in turn is unlikely before January 2021 at the soonest.
Even if schools offer in-person face-to-face instruction this fall, don’t imagine it will be just like last fall. In fear of enrollment declines and loss of endowment values, schools are cutting expenses now — freezing all faculty hiring, and preparing to raise faculty course loads and class sizes, even as they shrink course offerings. Minimum class sizes will go up, meaning specialized and small courses may disappear. Many classes that “migrated” online as an emergency measure in March 2020 may never come back. Faculty members forced to teach this way may find themselves required to go on doing so — regardless of whether they were ever trained to teach effectively online.
Will schools budget fully for the extra- and co-curricular activities that make campus life the memorable and unique experience that it is for so many? I wouldn’t bet on it. The same goes for the support services so crucial to success for first-generation students and others from historically underrepresented groups.
If you wouldn’t be satisfied with the bare-bones, minimum-contact all-online remote instruction being offered at the institution right now — don’t assume things will be any different, or any better, in fall 2020.
2. This is no time to be making one of the largest financial commitments of your life.
The United States economy has suffered a massive shock, and the consequences are ongoing and unknown. Even before this crisis, college students could not be confident they would be able to get a job after graduation that would enable them to repay a six-figure debt. Student loan debt is a huge political issue, and it is possible that the way we finance higher education in this country may change a great deal under a different presidential administration. But this, too, is unknown.
Most schools will allow you to defer for a year. Consider taking them up on it. And if they won’t let you, well, a school that admitted you once will probably admit you again (or a different one will). Declining numbers of college students also mean that schools that can afford it may offer more favorable financial aid packages in a year’s time. Those who have sat out a year may find themselves in a better position to finance a college education in a year’s time than they are right now, when so many families are facing serious financial uncertainty.
3. Let go of FOMO.
There are other important, worthwhile things to do if you take a semester or even a full year off. Here are just a few of them:
Work on a political campaign. There’s an election in November 2020, have you heard? If you care about what the world will look like when you’re an adult in it, get involved. Don’t like any candidates? Then get engaged in issue activism. Like student loan debt, health care, the environment, women’s rights, voting rights. Find something you care about.
Up your technological literacy. Yes, yes, we know everyone under 20 is a “digital native,” but my academic colleagues have found that many college students are actually not as familiar with digital educational technology platforms as many of us assumed. Even when in-person instruction resumes, it’s a safe bet that many more classes will be delivered online. Those with greater fluency in these platforms will be better prepared for that future. For example, how are your Blackboard skills?
Develop more life skills. This tip is not directed at the many, many American teenagers who already have jobs and significant domestic responsibilities as well. It’s directed at the hothouse flowers who arrive at highly selective institutions having won the science fair or debate tournament but never done a load of laundry or cooked a meal. Now is the time to learn.
Get a job (or volunteer). The coming economic downturn may be very severe, and I am not suggesting that teenagers compete for minimum-wage jobs with workers who are primary earners in their families. (And I know many high school students work already.) There are all sorts of work that can be done. Help homeschool younger siblings or become an online tutor. Free up working adults in your household, who may be out of sick leave or other support and must return to work. Get involved in community groups — online, if necessary; in person, when that becomes possible.
As an admitted freshman, it is not your responsibility to spend a fortune or go into debt to help a cash-strapped financially-mismanaged institution stay afloat. If they won’t be around a year from now without your tuition dollars, you’re better off finding that out without enrolling and accepting the substandard education that will be the best they can do under these circumstances.
You’ve already had some precious parts of your senior year stolen from you by this virus — sports championships, the prom, graduation. And if you’ve spent the past few years of your life looking forward to starting college in the fall of 2020, it’s understandable that you are still hoping it will all work out somehow, and you’ll be able to go. If you do, the school you attend may be like something out of The Leftovers, at best, a faded version of what you saw in those glossy online brochures, at worst, a decimated institution with a demoralized and shell-shocked remnant of faculty, staff, and students. If you defer or postpone, what’s the worst that can happen? Your dream school reopens in the fall, and provides in-person instruction all year without any problems. And you miss it, and become a member of the class of 2025, instead. That doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?