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

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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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LUCY O'NEILL: Hi. This is Lucy O'Neill (ph) from Peoria, Ill. And my life hack to get through this COVID-19 pandemic is while we're sitting in our house with nothing else to do, unsubscribe to all of that spam email that's in our inbox. It's taken up some time, but it's kept me busy. Have a great day.

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ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Andrew Limbong. Decision day, when soon-to-be college students pick which school they're going to, has been pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic. And they're making this big decision at a time when the future looks unstable.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: We know people who get a degree make more money in the long term. And the more people that we can get trained up into the jobs that we need, the better our economy is going to be. There are a lot of families who are hurting right now and who need the paycheck more than they need credits.

LIMBONG: That's Elissa Nadworny. She covers higher ed for NPR, and she's going to walk us through how to make that decision.

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LIMBONG: Hey, Elissa.

NADWORNY: Hey, Andrew.

LIMBONG: All right. So May 1 is normally known as decision day. But now what does the new timeline look like?

NADWORNY: Yeah, so because of the pandemic, about 400 schools have pushed the deposit deadline to June 1, so students and families now have more time to make these decisions. But even beyond those deadlines, colleges are being flexible. We've seen some schools say they'll honor their deposit for future semesters if they decide not to enroll. We've even seen some schools say they'll honor their deposits for future semesters if students decide not to enroll. Some schools have even extended their scholarships beyond that first semester in the fall. I think, you know, the idea of decision day has long been kind of losing its concreteness, and the coronavirus pandemic has kind of solidified that.

LIMBONG: So a lot of students have had financial situations which have changed a lot in the last couple months. So what resources are available for students who might need, you know, more financial assistance?

NADWORNY: Absolutely. We are seeing a lot of financial pain here, and families are feeling it. So most students fill out a federal application for student aid. This is with the Ed Department. This is with the federal government. And this tells you what you're eligible for. So loans are in there. Scholarships are in there - grants.

And you can appeal the numbers that you got. So this is, like, super important. Not that many people know about this, but you can actually go to the college and say, my financial situation has changed and I need more money. The financial aid appeals happens with the individual schools, so you have to reach out to the financial aid office to start this process.

But the process can be really wonky. You've got to - you've got to submit documentation. You have to say very specific things in your letter to the school. And there's a really helpful tool to do this. It's called SwiftStudent. It's online. It's free. It's made by a number of nonprofits. And this will help you navigate that process. So this tool gives you sample letters. It helps you kind of collect all your information so that you're not wasting your time going back-and-forth with the financial aid office trying to figure out what do I need to have you reevaluate my financial situation.

But you're not alone. This is happening. I've talked with a number of folks who work in the financial aid offices. They're seeing lots of appeals. Lots of people are doing this. And the financial aid offices are ready.

LIMBONG: OK. So for students who have, like, all their acceptance letters and all their options laid out in front of them and are being responsible decision-makers making their pro-con lists, what kind of questions should they be asking themselves now?

NADWORNY: Well, I think the hardest question but the most important question is the financial one. That means you got to sit down with the people who are important in your life and who are part of that financial decision - your family, in some cases your parents or even your kids or your husband or wife. You got to sit down and just have those financial conversations. Is this affordable? If it's not affordable, what are my other options? Are there cheaper options closer to home? Community college? Is there a way that I can go out to the university and request more money? I mean, that's what we just talked about.

It's really hard.

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NADWORNY: I don't want to - I don't want to, like, sugarcoat that right now because...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

NADWORNY: ...You're having to make decisions right now, and we don't know what's going to happen in the fall.

LIMBONG: Yeah. I mean, have you talked to any, you know, students that had big plans - right? - like, oh, I'm going to go, like, cross-country and go to this, like, dream school that I've had this sweater for for, like, five years and then now have to, like, you know, renegotiate with their own future-making plans?

NADWORNY: Yeah, I talked to a student named Alexis Jones. She's a senior here in Washington, D.C. And she had originally thought, I think I'm going to go to California. That was, like, her big plan. And she got into two schools in California. And, actually, both of them offered her really good financial aid packages. She would almost have to pay no tuition in the fall. But she just worried about what that meant. I mean, would she be able to come home if there was an emergency?

ALEXIS JONES: I really did want to go to California, but with the pandemic, it was like, what if I couldn't leave?

NADWORNY: Ultimately, she decided to go to Cornell, which is a great option.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

NADWORNY: It's in New York, but she was kind of thinking, worst-case scenario at Cornell, my dad can drive the six hours to come get me. And so that really factored into her decision.

LIMBONG: So are students thinking of different, cheaper options, you know, like community colleges?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So I've been listening in on calls between guidance counselors and some high school students this spring just to get a sense of kind of what decisions students are making. And lots of students are rethinking their four-year plan. They're basically saying a couple of things. One, if it looks like that four-year school is going to be online anyways, why not take my kind of general ed classes at the local community college? Tuition is cheaper. It looks the same. Like, I'm still in my bedroom on my computer. And so it might be a cheaper option. I think the other thing that a lot of students are thinking about is if their parents have lost a job or their families are facing financial hardships, they're thinking, I need to get a job so I can help my family, and so going away to college or doing full-time for a year - they're also kind of rethinking that, and maybe I should go part-time because I now am responsible for making a lot more money for my family.

And so community colleges are bracing for more enrollment. And, you know, this comes, of course, as they're really hurting financially. And so I think it'll be really interesting to see this migration of community colleges kind of handling a number of students that decide to stay local and go cheaper, but they're doing it with far fewer resources. So that's definitely something I got my eye on.

LIMBONG: And even for the people who do have the option of going to the full four-year college, that picture looks different - right? - the idea of, like, going to a dorm and, like, you know, hanging out with your friends. How might the rest of campus life look different in September?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So that's the million-dollar question - actually maybe billion-dollar.

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NADWORNY: Colleges are planning for a bunch of different scenarios, but there are so many things they don't know. What does this virus look like? How is it circulating in that specific community? What's our testing capacity? You know, there are so many questions. Terry Hartle, he's with the American Council on Education, and he spends his day talking to college presidents. And he explained it this way.

TERRY HARTLE: Every institution is thinking long and hard about this, but they're doing it in an atmosphere of enormous ambiguity. It's like the fog is so thick you can't see the corner of your street. There are just so many issues, so many actors, so many variables. It's really hard to figure out how to put something in place now that you're sure you will be comfortable with in the end of August, assuming you need it.

NADWORNY: I can give you kind of a breakdown of some of the things we've heard. I mean...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

NADWORNY: ...There's a range of ideas out there of what college could look like. And we're seeing almost every day colleges announce a plan. The challenge is, yeah, they're making a plan now, but (laughter) is it going to be still the plan in three months from now?

But we're seeing things like block scheduling has been floated. This is the idea that classes are in kind of shorter cycles, so you would take maybe one or two classes at a time, and then that would change every two to three weeks. And so that allows a little bit more flexibility. So they could do a block for three weeks on a class and then decide to go online or decide to go in person.

LIMBONG: Oh, wait; so, like, you, like, just take calculus for three weeks, and then you move on to, like, Greek history or whatever. Is that what you mean?

NADWORNY: Yeah, exactly. And there are some campuses that do this. Colorado College, which is in Colorado Springs, they're a small liberal arts school. They've been doing the block scheduling model for almost 50 years. And so they do a number of blocks every year; I think it's nine blocks for the whole academic year. And so students can kind of piecemeal. Professors love it 'cause they're able to go in-depth on a subject. Like, you're just learning - I don't know - geology for three weeks, so that means, like, you could be even in the field with your professor...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

NADWORNY: ...Like, on mountains maybe.

LIMBONG: Unless you absolutely hate geology, and then that three weeks is going to be absolutely awful, yeah.

NADWORNY: Then it's not your favorite three weeks, yeah.

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NADWORNY: Exactly. But, yes, a number of schools have looked into that idea. Some have also floated the idea that maybe there'd just be freshmen on campus to allow just fewer folks on campus. We've also seen the idea of shortening the semester or moving it earlier or later. We've seen colleges look into local hotels to kind of make deals with them to see if they could house students there, so maybe the dorms, instead of becoming triples or doubles, are now singles. I mean, we're seeing so much. Stanford came out and said, look; nothing is off the table. We might even do classes outside under tents. Every idea is out there, you know? And I think it's just 'cause we don't know. We're still learning about the virus, and we're still learning about can we gather in a lecture hall? Like, maybe not.

LIMBONG: Yeah. I mean, amid all this, like, uncertainty and, like, because we don't know, there is the option of just, like, kicking the can down the road - right? - and taking a gap year.

NADWORNY: Yeah, I've heard this a lot. The most important thing to think about when we talk about a gap year is what do we mean when we say gap year, because there is a difference between I think what's traditionally thought of as a gap year, which is you take a year off and you do a very specific thing for that year, and then at the end of the year, you're enrolled. So this means, like, you've reached out to your university and you've said, I'm going to do this for the year, and I want to defer until next fall. That's kind of the official gap year. And I think the challenge is that gets conflated with this idea of delaying enrollment or kicking the can down the road, as you said. I mean, we know that it gets a lot harder to enroll in college the longer you wait.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

NADWORNY: So, I mean, when you look at students who delayed and didn't go right out of high school, they're less likely to graduate. They're less likely to get a bachelor's. They're more likely to get a certificate, which we know in the economy is not as powerful. It doesn't make us as much money. So I think the worry is that if you decide not to go to college in the fall but you don't have a clear plan of when you're going to start up or what you're going to do with that, that's, I think, where there's a little bit of hesitancy because life hits.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

NADWORNY: You get a job. You get income. You start having more family responsibilities. It can be really hard to say, in a year from now, all right, I think I'm going to stop and go back to college. That's hard. That's just a reality.

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LIMBONG: You know, when I was thinking about picking a college and I had this idea of a career in mind, and so I picked a major that my folks weren't necessarily happy with because it isn't, like, a historically moneymaking endeavor, right? Are students thinking about what they're going to study when they go to college in a different light now that the economy doesn't look great?

NADWORNY: Yes, I think the answer is they are, and I think also colleges are. I mean, I've talked to a number of community college leaders who are really thinking deeply about, OK, what programs and what majors and what courses can we 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 match those up.

To answer your question about majors and how important the specific major is, I've been talking with career counselors across the country. One of them is Kamla Charles. She's at Valencia Community College in Orlando. And here's what she had to say.

KAMLA CHARLES: This is a hard lesson for a lot of our students to learn that, you know, in your mind, when you major in something, you feel like, OK, this major specifically fits just this area, but the reality in the world of work is that the skills that you're learning as a college student now, the major that you're in are providing you with a foundation. But, really, your experiences and the opportunities that you take advantage of is what's going to shape your career pathway.

NADWORNY: So I thought that was just such good advice because I think that's helpful for people who are currently in college who are graduating into this economy thinking, oh, my gosh, how do I get a job, but also for folks who are just about to enter college and are thinking about, what's my major going to be? The degree is going to be far more important than the major. What you learn along the way, your classes, the connections you make with professors, your experience - that's going to help you get a leg up in this economy, and not so much, you know, your major.

LIMBONG: You know, so as students are making, you know, this big decision about, like, what kind of college to go to or where to go or even to go to college at all, what sort of one bit of lasting advice do you have?

NADWORNY: Well, I think one thing to remember is that schools, your high school, they're still open. Even though the buildings are closed, the staff is still there. So guidance counselors, the mentor that you had at school - they're still online. They're still working. Reach out to them. They're going to help you navigate this decision. Don't make it in isolation. I just highly recommend reaching out to the folks who helped you during the year. They're going to have a really great perspective, and they're going to be able to offer you pretty solid advice.

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LIMBONG: That was Elissa Nadworny, education reporter for NPR. Thanks a lot, Elissa.

NADWORNY: Oh, Andrew, it was such a pleasure talking with you.

LIMBONG: Talking to you, too. I wish you were around when I was making this decision. What was your major?

NADWORNY: Oh, my gosh, documentary film.

LIMBONG: Oh, wow. That's cool.

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LIMBONG: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I hosted one on getting to know poetry. If you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at lifekit@npr.org. This episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Andrew Limbong. Thanks for listening.

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