College Planning in the COVID Era

Just like it’s done with so many aspects of life as we know it, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought sweeping change to the higher education landscape. This has left families with current or prospective college students wondering whether to rethink their immediate plans for higher education.

For generations, parents have sought to provide their kids with the best education the family could afford. For many, that meant a traditional four-year college. In addition to the academic experience, living on campus was seen as a rite of passage few wanted their kids to miss.

Enter COVID-19. In short order, students were sent home. Before, they’d enjoyed in-person instruction, collaboration with classmates, and a vibrant campus life. Then suddenly, their world was limited to exclusively online learning and social interaction. Things have eased up some, but the “college experience” is a decidedly diminished, riskier incarnation of its former self.

Though we all hope that the vaccine rollout will bring familiarity back to daily life, we don’t yet know how soon colleges and universities will be offering the experiences we’re used to, including on-campus learning and housing. The necessity that arose in 2020 for these institutions to make do and find alternatives will have a lasting impact, even after health data says that they can return to “normal”. Some changes are here to stay, while some will fall by the wayside.

Families are asking themselves “Is it safe? Is it worth it?” The good news is there are more choices than ever before, and acceptance of the path less travelled has never been higher. Here are some things to think about as you weigh the options.

Option 1: Stay the Course (More or Less)

While the exact college dream you and your student envisioned may no longer exist, you could opt to push forward with its “new normal” counterpart. If the student in your family is healthy, motivated, and focused more on the core education than on campus life, that might well be the best option.

But a lot depends on the schools themselves, so do your homework. Colleges have been struggling to navigate the severe financial and logistical challenges of the pandemic. Some have managed the twists and turns better than others. Some are better equipped for online/hybrid learning. Some have had to make difficult decisions, such as eliminating majors or laying off staff. Not all will survive. This could be a key consideration, especially if graduation is a long way off.

What about kids who are less settled on a particular college, lifestyle, or education objective? For them, it’s harder to make a case for paying full freight for a big-ticket school in a far-flung destination. Many are opting instead to commute to a local college, state university, or community college, at least for the short term. There, they can earn credits, sample multiple disciplines, or explore internships more cost-effectively. Then later, when things open up, they’ll be in a better position to succeed with their original college plan if it still makes sense. One important caveat: if someone in your household is at high risk for COVID, having a student attending classes in person while living at home could increase that risk.

Option 2: Postpone the Trip

Moving ahead per the original timeline for college may not be the best strategy. For example, if the cultural experience of on-campus living is vital, or health concerns are paramount, now might be a good time for a gap year. It’s a path that, in the past, some were reluctant to take out of fear of being left behind. But according to the Gap Year Association, research suggests that a gap year can actually improve academic and career outcomes. And now, much of the stigma has been erased, as COVID concerns have prompted wider acceptance out of necessity.

Traditionally, a gap year was seen as a time for students to explore via volunteer or paid work, travel, and self-reflection. While the pandemic has put a damper on some of this, it has also helped foster acceptance of alternative approaches for gap year pursuits.

For example, students can choose from an endless array of online college classes at a fraction of what they would cost in-person. In fact, some Ivy League schools have made their course material available for free online. So if your child is uncertain whether to pursue medicine, law, or business, intro classes from Harvard, Yale, UPenn, and others are just a click away.

Option 3: Take an Alternate Route

It’s not just colleges that are seeking to educate those who want to learn. Companies like Google and Apple offer certification programs that prepare attendees to fill lucrative, in-demand tech jobs. This could be a great way to build skills and work/life experience during a gap year. And many employers no longer require a college degree as a prerequisite for hire. For a child who’s a born engineer, this training could even serve as a substitute for traditional college.

Finally, what if your child prefers hands-on work? Thanks in part to the mentality that “a 4-year college is for everyone” that has prevailed in recent years, expertise in manual skills is in great demand. The number of plumbers, electricians, and other “blue collar” workers needed far exceeds the supply. Job prospects, wages, and educational opportunities for these workers are all on the rise. For the right child, trade school, apprenticeship programs, or online/hybrid training might be a better fit than college.

If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we must sometimes break free of long-held assumptions about what is the best path, to make way for a brighter future. In the realm of college planning, that has meant letting go of the idea that “one size fits all” and opening ourselves to new models for educating future generations. And that’s great, because it means freedom to choose.

At the same time, charting a new course is more challenging than following conventional wisdom. That’s why now, more than ever, it’s important to be thoughtful about what you want from the college -experience. In the end, only you and your student can decide if the “new normal” for traditional college provides it, or if you need to consider a detour.

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