College 2020: How To Make A Decision : Life Kit While it's hard to know what college will look like this fall, college decision day is almost here. So what can students do to make a sound choice during this uncertain time? Education reporter Elissa Nadworny gives an update on what incoming college students need to know about appealing financial aid, changing plans and thinking through a gap year.

Picking A College For The Fall? Here's How To Decide For An Unknown Future

Picking A College For The Fall? Here's How To Decide For An Unknown Future

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College decision day has been drastically changed by the coronavirus pandemic. NPR Life Kit walks you through how to make a decision about college.
LA Johnson/NPR

May 1st is historically the deadline for college-bound students to decide which college they'll be attending. This year, with so much uncertainty about what college will actually look like in the fall, about 400 institutions have pushed back this deadline to June.

Andrew Limbong of NPR's Arts desk interviews Elissa Nadworny, an NPR Education reporter, about some of the hefty decisions college-bound students are weighing this spring.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What resources are available for students who need more financial assistance than they were offered?

It's possible that the financial aid you were offered by your college of choice isn't enough. Perhaps your or your family's financial situation has changed in the last few months. Good news: You are able to appeal you financial aid. The appeals process happens with each individual institution (as opposed to when you originally filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA). There's a really helpful free tool to do this called SwiftStudent. It'll help you navigate that process with sample letters and make sure you're collecting the right documents so that you're not wasting your time going back and forth with the financial aid office. You're not alone — financial aid officers are already seeing lots of appeals. They're ready!

What sort of questions should students be asking as they consider their options?

The hardest question but the most important question is the financial one. You have to sit down with the people who are important in your life and who are part of that financial decision and ask, is this affordable? If it's not affordable, what are my other options? Are there cheaper options closer to home like community college? Is there a way that I can go to the university and request more money?

Tara Miller is a college and career counselor at Austin High School in Texas and she's been advising her students and families to focus on what they can control right now, not what they can't. When it comes to deciding where to go, she says, "the best thing to do is listen to how the colleges are communicating." Are they open to conversations? Are they being flexible and honest? "The way they are reaching out to you now is really going to be telling how they will treat students when campuses or even their online learning spaces open up."

Are students reconsidering attending colleges that are far from their hometowns?

Lots of students are rethinking their colleges plans. Many are considering staying closer to home at least for the immediate future. If there's an emergency or another outbreak in the coming year, many students would prefer to be closer to home. Also, if school is going to be online anyway, why not take general education requirements at a local community college? Tuition is cheaper and the experience will look similar. Community colleges are definitely bracing for more enrollment.

What might campus life look like in the fall?

Nobody really knows yet! A lot of different ideas are being floated. The California State University system announced they are planning to be virtual in the fall. Others have said they'll be in-person, but with shorter three-week block schedules, freshman-only campuses or with dorm rooms converted to be single occupancy. Stanford even floated the idea of hosting lectures outside in big tents. No idea is off the table.

Are more students considering taking a gap year?

Yes. But let's clarify the term "gap year." Often folks refer to a gap year as a time when a student officially defers acceptance to an institution and then takes a year to do a very specific thing — a job, an internship or travel. They have a clear start date for when they'll return to school. That often gets conflated with just delaying enrollment.

We know that it gets a lot harder to enroll in college the longer you wait. Students who delay and don't enroll in college after high school are less likely to graduate and less likely to get a Bachelor's degree. That's because life happens and and it can be really hard to tear yourself away from that in a year and go back to college.

Are students thinking differently about what they plan to study once they get to college?

Yes. But that might be a good thing. Kamla Charles, a career counselor at Valencia College in Orlando, told me that college majors, don't matter as much as students think they do, especially when it comes to getting a job after graduation. "When you major in something, you feel like this major specifically fits just this area," she says." The major that you're in is providing you with a foundation. But really, your experiences and the opportunities that you take advantage of shape your career pathway."

Colleges are also re-thinking the programs they offer — especially community colleges. Many higher ed leaders are thinking deeply about what majors and courses they can offer that are very specific to this moment. We often see the most adaptability and flexibility at our nation's community colleges. Those are the folks that are seeing the economy. They're seeing the jobs that folks need to go into and they're trying to meet those needs.

Anything you'd recommend for college-bound students to do?

For folks not coming from high school, lean on the admissions staff or financial aid staff at the college you are interested in. For high school seniors: Don't forget to take advantage of your school's counselors. Your high school building may very well be closed, but your counselors and school mentors are all still working. It's hard to make these decisions in a vacuum. Reach out to the people who have been guiding you through this process from day one.

Have a random life tip you want to share? Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.

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The audio portion of this story was produced by Sylvie Douglis.