Gap Years To Financial Aid: A College Decision Day Colored By Coronavirus It's unclear what college will look like in the fall, but students and families are having to make decisions now, despite worries about financial aid, travel and a highly contagious disease.

For Aspiring College Students, Pandemic Has Created 'Debilitating' Uncertainty

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Today is May 1, which is traditionally the day that many college-bound students have to make up their mind about where they want to go. But because of the added stress of the coronavirus, nearly 400 schools have moved the deadline back a month to June 1. But making a decision doesn't clear up all the uncertainty about what happens in the fall. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has the story.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: For the last few weeks, it's been tough for Alex Jones to focus. She's a high school senior in Washington, D.C. And she's been taking classes, studying for AP tests and working remotely all from a two-bedroom apartment with, at times, four other people.

ALEX JONES: There's always someone everywhere all the time.

NADWORNY: She's found joy in painting and dreaming about college. She committed this week to Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. She's excited, but says it's bittersweet.

JONES: I don't know how to feel because I don't know if I'm going to be going, you know, immediately in the fall.

NADWORNY: It's unclear what college will look like in the fall. But students and families are having to make decisions now despite worries about financial aid, travel and, of course, a highly contagious disease.

ZACHARY MONTEZ: That uncertainty is so debilitating for some of my students.

NADWORNY: Zachary Montez is a college counselor working with high school students in Denver. He says figuring out the finances is always the hardest part of the college process. And it's only gotten harder this year for many of his families.

MONTEZ: Before this pandemic, they were in a comfortable spot financially. And now they're not.

NADWORNY: And that financial squeeze may lead to changes in students' decisions. Survey data suggests that 1 in 6 students are deciding not to go to four-year colleges full-time. That includes students who already made a deposit because situations change. Back in December, Sydnee Hrachovina, a high school senior in western Michigan, got into her dream school, Michigan State University.

SYDNEE HRACHOVINA: It was Christmas Eve. It was the best Christmas present I've ever gotten.

NADWORNY: But now she's trying to figure out how to pay for it. Her two summer jobs as a nanny and working at an ice cream shop are up in the air.

HRACHOVINA: I am contemplating appealing my financial aid offer.

NADWORNY: That means she'll ask MSU to reevaluate how much money they're giving her. She's considered going to the local community college if MSU classes are online. But she's not ready to give up her dream of leaving home.

HRACHOVINA: Because I want to leave my little rural town. I want to get out. I want to go to football games. I want to go to oversized classes.

NADWORNY: Some students have toyed with delaying those experiences a year. Alexis Jones says she's heard a lot of talk about the gap year from other Cornell-bound students. But that's really not an option for her.

JONES: I thought if I took a gap year, I may be compelled not to go back.

NADWORNY: Plus, she'd have to find a job. She'd still be living at home. And she's not sure what would happen to all her scholarships.

JONES: Yeah. I definitely wouldn't risk that by taking a gap year.

NADWORNY: Research backs that up. Studies show if you go to college right after high school, you're more likely to get your degree.

MONTEZ: A lot of things can occur during that gap year that can impact them from moving forward.

NADWORNY: Montez says it can be hard to give up income from a job that replaced classes.

MONTEZ: That or just life happens.

NADWORNY: Another alternative is simply staying close to home. College advisers around the country are seeing a renewed interest in community college. They're often much cheaper and local. Alexis Jones says geography helped her decide to go to Cornell. She essentially got full rides to two schools in California, across the country for her family in D.C.

JONES: I really do want to go to California. With the pandemic, it was like, what if I, like, couldn't leave or something?

NADWORNY: At least going to school in New York, she says, worst-case scenario, her dad could drive the six hours to come get her.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.


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