By ARIELLE MITROPOULOS and ANDY FIES, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — May 1, the deadline for high school seniors to decide what college they will attend, is normally a day that brings the future into focus. But with the nation still in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, students face more uncertainty than clarity as this year’s National Decision Day approaches.
Many colleges across the nation have yet to decide whether they will open their campuses in the fall or offer online-only classes. That possibility worries high school seniors and current collegians, who have already traded their classrooms for their childhood bedrooms to take e-classes and are dissatisfied.
Ben Davidoff, a high school senior from Los Angeles, told ABC News, “There’s really no comparison between online schooling and in-person classes.”
Rachel Lott, another high school senior from Evanston, Illinois, agreed.
“Online classes are nowhere near as impactful in my opinion, just based on e-learning now, as classes in person,” she said.
Such sentiments, combined with the prospect of ongoing stay-at-home orders and the jarring economic downturn, are prompting an increasing number of college-bound seniors to seriously consider taking a gap year, rather than commit to another possible semester — or more — of remote learning this fall.
Nearly one in six graduating seniors, according to a poll by the Baltimore-based Art & Science Group, now indicate that due to the coronavirus pandemic, they will likely revise their plans of attending a four-year college in the fall and take a gap year.
In addition, 63% of graduating seniors are uncertain whether they will be able to attend their first school choice in the fall, with 21% of these students indicating that it was no longer affordable, and 12% citing personal or family health reasons.
Independent college counselor and youth mentor Rich Cooper told ABC News that he is advising all of the students and parents he works with to opt for a gap year instead of enrolling in the fall semester.
“Part of this pandemic is that we have no control, and much of that is true,” Cooper said. “But we do have some control, and that’s over what we’re going to choose. How do we make choices that are better for ourselves? These choices are in the gap year.”
Cooper, who is based in Santa Monica, California, and has been advising students for nearly 15 years, explained that he believes the foundation of the college experience is based on the deep relationships built on campus between students, professors, and friends.
And given the cost of colleges nowadays, Cooper is concerned that students will not be getting their money’s worth.
Ned Lott, parent of high schooler Rachel and also of a current college junior, shared similar concerns.
“You’re paying for the college experience, you’re paying for the lecture experience, you’re paying for your kids mingling with other bright and interesting students, and all of that’s gone,” Lott told ABC News. “I don’t feel comfortable writing a big check without them saying, ‘listen, if we switch to an e-learning platform, then there’s going to be this kind of rebate.’”
Rachel, who plans to attend the University of Minnesota, agreed.
“I think if my parents were to have to pay the same tuition for online classes, I honestly think I would take a gap year,” she said.
The decision has made an already pivotal point in her life even more stressful.
“I’m definitely pretty freaked out,” Rachel said. “I’m struggling with looking forward to it as much as I was before. I don’t want to get my hopes up, because I know that there’s probably a pretty high chance that we’re not going to be able to continue in the fall semester.”
The desire to take a gap year is not limited to high school seniors. Roni Edni, a current freshman at George Washington University, told ABC that she is seriously considering taking a semester or a year off, should the university institute remote learning in the fall.
“I chose to attend George Washington partially because of its location, and it seems irrational to pay the same amount of money that I do to live in D.C. when I will be living at home,” Edni said.
International students, uncertain about their plans to study in the United States, share frustrations experienced by their American peers.
In a letter obtained by ABC News from the University of Pennsylvania to a group of accepted international students, Dean of Admissions, Eric J. Furda reminded these students that they have the option to take a gap year, especially since travel to the U.S. may be restricted in the fall.
“While I know being able to arrive in Philadelphia this August is your first wish,” Furda wrote, “I also recognize that the decision to take a gap year might offer the opportunity to mitigate some uncertainty, and allow you to begin to make concrete plans.”
One of those considering that offer: Heather Shieh, a student from Melbourne, Australia, who was accepted to The University of Pennsylvania. Her life-long dream of attending school in the United States does not include e-learning.
“I don’t want to end up watching lectures and attending class at 4 a.m. on Zoom because of the time difference,” said Shieh. “I’m still holding out for the marginal possibility that I can move to Philadelphia to attend school in August.”
Given the vast list of COVID-related restrictions, it is also unclear what a gap year will look like for those considering it. Job opportunities that normally make that choice tempting may be limited.
For many low-income students, taking a gap year would only be realistic if they could work in order to save money for college, said Steve Newman, executive director of Evanston Scholars, an Illinois-based non-profit that assists first-generation and lower income college applicants with the admissions and financial aid process.
“To our kids, I think the question would be, where would they get jobs? There’s no decisions yet, but I think it has to be combined with whether they could work or not,” Newman said.
As of now Newman said students in his program are mainly concerned with how much financial aid they will receive, not whether they will pursue a gap year because of the pandemic.
“I’m definitely still going to try to push to go to college in the fall. I never really thought about a gap year because I want to get out into the workforce as swift as I can,” said 18-year-old Jordan Drummond, a senior Evanston Scholar, deciding between several schools. “The most important thing is really just getting aid so that the yearly cost isn’t going to put us in extreme debt.”
Drummond also worries he would not be able to pursue music production, his chosen major, if remote learning is all that’s offered. “If the pandemic isn’t cleared up by the fall, I fear that it may affect what college I choose.”
Thus, the as-yet unknown decision of whether schools reopen their campuses next semester breeds uncertainty in a variety of ways. Even the deadline is uncertain this year. Many schools have extended it one month to June 1.
At a time which should be filled with excitement and joy in anticipation of new beginnings, many students are instead grappling with anxiety, unsure of their future.
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