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5 things to consider when picking a college in the COVID-19 era
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5 things to consider when picking a college in the COVID-19 era

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Colleges have faced innumerable challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the way they've responded to those issues should influence how prospective students evaluate them.

Online learning, strict campus rules and lingering economic concerns have left many students wondering if their college investment will be worthwhile. As a result, fall 2020 enrollment declined by 2.5% — or by more than 400,000 students — according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Hafeez Lakhani, founder of college admissions counseling firm Lakhani Coaching, acknowledges the changing college landscape but still advises students to prioritize college. “Education is about playing the long game,” he says, pointing to data showing college graduates earn nearly twice as much over their lifetimes compared with high school graduates.

As you finalize your college selection, consider these questions to gauge which school is best for you in the era of COVID-19.

1. Can you visit campus?

Don’t count out a school just because you can’t physically visit campus.

“Sure, you don’t get to step foot on campus, but you have more opportunities to connect with the school than you had before,” says Sydney Matthes, counselor at college admissions consulting firm Collegewise. She says students can participate in virtual campus tours and virtual class audits.

For example, Hampton University’s campus in Virginia remains closed through at least this spring but is conducting tours and information sessions virtually. Admissions officials say the virtual tours allow prospective students to get a sense of the campus in anticipation of its reopening.

If a school isn’t offering virtual tours, Matthes advises students to contact the admissions office directly and ask to meet via video chat with a professor or current student. “It’s easier to sign up for a virtual tour, but shows interest to write an email,” she says. “Creating relationships is important.”

2. What are the COVID-19 rules?

Having a sense of how a college handled the pandemic’s initial outbreak, the rules it set and its response to students breaking campus COVID-19 rules will give you an idea of what school life will look like.

Brett Joshpe, a lawyer who represented students dismissed from Northeastern University over COVID-19 rule violations, says he got calls from parents all over the country who were concerned about the pandemic rules and their enforcement.

“A lot of parents and [students] in general are rethinking what they’re paying for and where they are going [to college],” Joshpe says.

Make sure you can commit to rules set by a college before deciding to attend.

The pandemic has added extra factors to an already complex process.

3. What is your — and the college’s — financial situation?

Many colleges and students are seeing their finances change as the pandemic drags on.

For colleges, Lakhani attributes some of the financial decline to decreased international student enrollment. He says there have been fewer international students coming to the United States over the last several years, and the pandemic only exacerbated the situation.

“International students typically pay full tuition,” Lakhani says. “When you take the flow of international students out, universities have to make up that tuition elsewhere.”

He fears that the cost difference could be passed down to other students, that programs or amenities could be affected and that smaller private schools may have to close.

For students, the pandemic-induced economic downturn means you may have less money available to cover college expenses. According to a June 2020 survey by college study guide website OneClass, about 50% of the 9,000 students surveyed say the coronavirus pandemic has decreased their ability to pay tuition.

But even with a shifting financial landscape, you can still attend college:

  • Select a college you can afford that has a strong financial standing.
  • Take advantage of scholarships, grants and other free money through the FAFSA before borrowing.
  • If your financial situation has changed from what’s represented on your FAFSA, contact prospective schools and request a professional judgment to amend your aid offer.

4. What are the online options?

There is no guarantee that colleges will be back in person by fall 2021. And if they start off in person, they could have to quickly pivot back online.

So even though you may be considering a school based on its in-person classes, campus and activities, also evaluate its online structure. To do this, ask to test drive the school’s online learning platform and attend a virtual lecture. You can also get the perspective of a student who started off in person, but had to switch to online.

And ask if your school keeps records of how many professors are trained or certified in online learning. The ability to teach great classes in person doesn’t always mean the ability to teach great classes online.

5. What support services does the college offer?

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in mental health issues for college-aged students. According to a June 2020 survey by the research institute Center for Promise, one-third of the 3,300 teenagers surveyed say they have been feeling more depressed or unhappy during the pandemic.

A September 2020 study by the Journal of Medical Internet Research shows 71% of 195 college students surveyed expressed feelings of depression and anxiety. The study concluded there is an “urgent need to develop interventions and preventive strategies to address the mental health of college students.”

Some colleges are responding to this need. Appalachian State University in North Carolina, for example, began offering virtual one-on-one and group counseling for remote and on-campus students. It also hosts a student-led mental health ambassador group that offers peer mentorship.

If you have been struggling emotionally during the pandemic, prioritize a college that has strong support services. Matthes says she advised students to consider support services before the pandemic and that they are even more important now. “The uncertainty can be a little scary, but this, hopefully, isn’t forever,” she says.

Cecilia Clark writes for NerdWallet. Email: cclark@nerdwallet.com.

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