Should I Still Go to College? Families, Students in Washington Reevaluate Plans Amid Coronavirus


For eight years, Foster High School counselor Jenni Standard has helped Tukwila's low-income and minority students with solid academic records become the first in their families to make the leap to college. Most of her students get acceptance letters, and two-thirds of those in her college-prep classes enroll in a four-year school.

But not this year.

The sharp downturn in the economy due to the coronavirus has caused half of her students in a class called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) to scrap plans to go to a four-year school, and instead prepare to live at home and enroll in community college. "For a lot of them, their parents' finances have changed significantly," she said.

High school seniors across the country are having to make the most consequential decision of their young lives during a national health emergency. Faced with an uncertain economic future and a need to help parents pay bills at home, some students are scaling back their ambitions.

The result? Fall enrollment may be down as much as 20% in four-year colleges, predicts SimpsonScarborough, a higher education research and marketing company, which has done several national surveys asking students about their plans.

And the numbers are much worse for students of color. According to a report by Inside Higher Ed, SimpsonScarborough says 41% of high school seniors of color say they either won't go to college at all in the fall, or that it's too soon to say. That's nearly twice the percentage of white high school students who say they won't attend or haven't decided.

Many studies show that people with at least a community college credential are more likely to stay employed during a downturn, and will make more money over their lifetimes; a bachelor's degree has even bigger benefits. Historical data also shows that students who don't go to college immediately after high school are less likely to ever enroll.

Friday, May 1, was National College Decision Day -- the date when high school seniors typically commit to a school. But many colleges have extended the deadline to June 1, and some have also given students the option to defer admission. Even in a normal year, some kids put down a deposit in the spring, then cancel later. The bottom line: Enrollment numbers won't become clear until this fall.

The University of Washington stayed with the May 1 decision day, and its student enrollment for fall 2020 is up slightly from last year, an unexpected and welcome result, said admissions director Paul Seegert. About 7,825 students confirmed enrollment for fall 2020, although when summer attrition is factored in, the final number will likely be closer to 7,050, he said. Last year, the UW enrolled 6,984 freshmen.

Whitman College, a small private college in Walla Walla, also stayed with the May 1 decision day, but told students they could request an extension. The college has received 350 deposits from enrolled students, a 16% decline from the same time last year, when it received 419. But 108 students have asked for extensions, compared to 17 last year, which makes the two years hard to compare, said college spokeswoman Gillian Frew in an email.

More low-income students may choose community college

The COVID-19 crisis is affecting students like Foster High senior Abdulnasser Hussien, who is in Standard's AVID class. (AVID is funded by a national nonprofit, and its aim is to close the opportunity gap.) Hussien dreamed of becoming the first in his family to go to college, earn a mechanical engineering degree and eventually work for Boeing.

His first choice was Eastern Washington University, near Spokane. He's visited the campus and talked to an engineering faculty member, and he liked what he saw and heard.

But in recent weeks, his father has lost one of his two jobs, and his mother's work hours have been curtailed. The only financial aid EWU offered was in the form of loans. Reluctantly, Hussien downsized his plans. Now, he plans to attend Highline College, live at home and try to transfer to the University of Washington after two years.

At Tyee High School in SeaTac, some of Karly Feria's students have told her recently that they want to take a "gap year" -- a pause in their education -- and work. Feria, a college counselor, worries that they'll never go back to get that degree.

"It's a hard conversation, because if a student feels like they really need to support their family, that's a reality," she said. Many students have told her that "they need to contribute to the cost of rent, or putting food on the table, in a way that wasn't as urgent as before."

Community colleges generally have lower completion rates than four-year schools, and most experts believe that's because they have fewer resources to help students struggling academically. In Washington's four-year colleges, about 90% of students who go to a four-year school persist beyond the first year; in community colleges, that number is 63%.

Both Feria and Standard say one of their biggest challenges is helping students with financial-aid paperwork. One day, Standard spent an hour and a half guiding one student through the complex online form over the phone. Typically, resolving that issue would take just 15 or 20 minutes in person, she said.

"Students are feeling frustrated with the lack of ability to get the information they need to make decisions" about college, she said. While a high percentage of Foster's kids fill out the financial-aid forms, the students must stay on top of their emails to complete the process and get aid. "In the best of times, this is a hurdle for my students and so I'm definitely worried," she said.

Many are still college-bound

For many students, college is still firmly on their radar.

San Francisco student Rose Sosa was on the fence between Whitman and Occidental College, in Los Angeles. In the days leading up to Decision Day, a complex dance unfolded between colleges and potential students, said her mom, Anne Selting. Many schools are feeling the financial strain, and are trying to woo students while still sounding exclusive and desirable.

Sosa had visited Occidental, but not Whitman, which she intended to visit over spring break. But this spring, campuses were closed.

So Sosa sized up how helpful the colleges seem to be during a crisis. If another outbreak happens in the fall, she wants to know: "Are they going to be a good, supportive college, or will it be every student for themselves?" On Friday, she chose Whitman.

Jaida Votolato, a senior at Edmonds-Woodway High School, was accepted to five universities and chose University of California, Santa Barbara. She, too, wasn't able to visit the campus, and she is worried about moving so far away from home during a national health emergency. But the California school accepted her into their theater program, and she thought it offered her the best opportunities to pursue theater, dance and music.

"Honestly, if this pandemic continues into my freshman year of college, preventing me from truly being able to experience what college in California is like, I may resort to a gap year, or community college in-state," Votolato said.

Gabriel Zuniga, a Ballard High student, worried about finances and considered a gap year, but ultimately accepted an admissions offer from New York University. "I'm a creature of habit and I need more structure than I think I would have in a gap year," he said by email. He, too, was unable to visit the campus before he accepted.

The virus hasn't shaken the resolve of the 41 seniors who are Rainier Scholars this year. The nonprofit program offers a pathway to college for low-income students of color through intensive academic preparation that lasts for 12 years. All of the seniors are sticking to their original plans, said counselor Derek Rogers.

But the uncertainty has been tough on the students. Rogers said, "We acknowledge their uncertainty; we tell them, 'You're still going to college, it might not look like you thought it would look during the first semester.'"