By Paul McCoy, CIMA®, AIF®
The COVID-19 pandemic is changing our world, and there’s no answer for when we’ll be able to resume life as we knew it before. One major change in question is the future of universities and how students, especially incoming freshmen, can expect to receive higher education. This year, colleges across America transitioned to remote learning in early March, meaning many left campus for Spring Break and never returned.
Since then, college students around the world have not stepped foot on campus, and there’s much uncertainty regarding how this coming fall semester will look as well. Amidst all these changes, incoming college students are faced with an important question, “Should I consider taking a gap semester?” We’ll discuss what universities are currently doing, and what students may want to think about before embarking on their fall semester.
Our Current Situation
Incoming freshmen have already missed out on senior year highlights, including prom and graduation. And by now, many have already determined where they will attend college. But amid global uncertainty, the new question of whether they should even begin taking classes in the fall has arisen.
The trajectory of coronavirus in America has proven unpredictable, which is why most universities do not yet know what the fall semester will look like. Many colleges around the country have expressed their intent in returning to in-person instruction in the fall. Others are publicly debating whether or not to keep students off-campus until 2021. Either way, it’s become evident that things will likely not return 100 percent back to normal by the time August rolls around. But to what degree social distancing will still need to be enforced is up in the air. This means that in all likelihood, incoming freshmen will be facing a different reality during their first semester as college students than they originally would have expected.
Online vs. In-Person Education
College is a place to network, develop bonds and work closely with world-class faculty. Online learning, while effective to a degree, can deprive students of these in-person interactions typically experienced throughout one’s on-campus college career.
A new survey conducted by Simpson Scarborough explored how current college students and high school seniors felt about the transition to online classes. Of the nearly 1,100 participants, 50 percent said it was “worse” and 13 percent said “a lot worse” than in-person instruction.1 Many colleges have extended the deadline for students to accept college acceptance offers, and amidst all this chaos, the decision is truly a hard one. In addition, incoming freshmen have had the added disadvantage of missing out on campus tours and in-person interviews.
If universities don’t open back up for in-person instruction, students and their families must face the reality of deciding if it's worth paying tuition and enrolling for the fall semester. The pandemic has already taken an enormous toll on families worldwide, and if incoming college students don’t get the in-person instruction and experience they are supposed to receive, they might consider a gap year.
In that Scarborough survey, when the high school students were asked how likely it was that they will go to college in the fall as they had planned, a fifth of respondents said it was likely or highly likely that they would not attend because of the pandemic.1 Not only is this worrisome for incoming freshmen, but it's also concerning to the universities as well. Colleges, like so many businesses and individuals, will face financial hardship as a direct result of the current pandemic.
Students across America are hoping to return to campus in the fall, but the reality of this decision is still unknown. Whether you’re an incoming freshman or the parent of one, it’s important to sit down with your family and decide what you’re all comfortable with doing. If the colleges you applied to have offered an extension on committing, take that extra time to see if the coming weeks or months will provide a clearer vision of what this fall may look like.
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