With College Decisions Looming, High School Seniors Ask About School Next Fall : Consider This from NPR The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is giving us all hope that we'll be back to some sense of normal soon, but the pandemic will likely still play a role in what college life looks like next fall.

We asked some high school seniors what questions they have about deciding where to go to school and what college life is like during a pandemic.

To help with answering those questions and sharing some advice, we hear from two current college freshmen, Ayiana Davis Polen at Spelman College in Atlanta and Adam Ahmad at the University of California, Berkeley, and NPR reporter Elissa Nadworny.

In participating regions, you'll also hear from local journalists about what's happening in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.
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High School Seniors Ask, 'What Will College Look Like Next Fall?'

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High School Seniors Ask, 'What Will College Look Like Next Fall?'

High School Seniors Ask, 'What Will College Look Like Next Fall?'

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In normal times, the campus tour is a big part of a college decision. Every year, packs of high school students and their parents make their way across college campuses, trying to figure out how the images in the college brochure match up against reality.

JANELLE CATBAGAN: You might get some students who are a little rowdy in the back, which is totally fine.

CORNISH: Janelle Catbagan is a junior at Cal State University, Dominguez Hills, where she used to actually lead those campus tours. And she loved it.

CATBAGAN: That whole feeling of, you know, being on campus and just being surrounded by everybody there and that feel of the environment.

CORNISH: Her favorite stop was the library.

CATBAGAN: We'd walk into the library. I would kind of talk about our coffee shop because, like, who else loves coffee, right? I would actually describe how I would get coffee in our coffee shop, and then I'd go upstairs to the third floor. And bring my coffee...

CORNISH: It's this space where students could sit together and do homework and study, the kind of place that is packed late at night during finals week - or rather, used to be. Because of the pandemic, CSU Dominguez Hills, it's mostly virtual this semester.

CATBAGAN: There are some exceptions for lab courses, of course, but in terms of using the library, no one's really in there. So it's empty, I could imagine.

CORNISH: These days, Janelle Catbagan does her studying at a desk in her childhood bedroom in Carson, Calif. That's also where she leads the virtual version of campus tours.

CATBAGAN: Welcome, everyone. If you just got recently accepted to our university, congratulations. We're so excited to welcome you to our Toros family.

CORNISH: Catbagan and a couple of other tour guides take turns reading slides about student groups and online resources and campus buildings that will at some point be open again.

CATBAGAN: But this is our Loker Student Union, so it is our student union on our campus. We like to consider this to be kind of the heart of the campus, really.

We just do a PowerPoint, pretty much, of our campus and talk about it. So it definitely does not beat the in-person experience, but yeah (laughter).

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - pandemic restrictions have forced lots of high school seniors to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives, sight unseen. We're inviting some current college students to answer a range of questions about their experience as students prepare for a very uncertain fall semester.


CORNISH: From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Thursday, April 1.


CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Remember back to the end of last spring? We were a few months into the pandemic, and high schools all over the country had to rethink graduation ceremonies. In fact, most of those were canceled.


AYIANA DAVIS POLEN: I mean, I still haven't gotten over the fact that, like, what happened in high school - like, I didn't get a prom or graduation. Like, I don't think I'll ever get over that.

CORNISH: Ayiana Davis Polen graduated in spring of 2020.


POLEN: But I think by the time, like, the summer was over, I was just, like, I - there's nothing I can do. There's no reason to complain. Like, I'm safe. My family's safe.

CORNISH: Ayiana is now a freshman at Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga. She says the disappointment she felt at the end of her senior year helped, in a way, prepare her for a very strange introduction to college life.


POLEN: Last semester, we were completely virtual, the entire school. And this semester, they're doing a hybrid, low-density situation.

CORNISH: Hybrid, meaning students get to take some classes in person, but the rest remain online. And for Ayiana, only her piano lessons are on campus. Online classes can be a bummer for students but a necessary one. Another bummer is that, for the most part, there's still paying the same tuition as if they were learning on campus.


ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: We have seen only a few colleges give some sort of COVID discount, like a handful.

CORNISH: Elissa Nadworny reports on colleges and higher education for NPR.


NADWORNY: So the majority, price is the same whether it's online or in person.

CORNISH: And so prospective college students have been asking this question.


NADWORNY: If college doesn't look like what it used to, how am I still expected to pay sometimes $50,000 a year for it? I can't answer that for you.


CORNISH: Price is a huge factor for high school seniors deciding where they'll go to school next fall, but there are a lot of other considerations and a lot of unknowns. Sure, the vaccine rollout is giving us all hope that we'll be back to some sense of normal soon, but the pandemic will likely still play a role in what college life looks like. So we wanted to be helpful. We asked some high school seniors what questions they have about this huge decision. And to help with answers and advice, I'm joined by two students who are living through this strange new college experience, freshman Ayiana Davis Polen, who we heard earlier. Hello.


CORNISH: And Adam Ahmad, a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley. Welcome.

ADAM AHMAD: Thank you. Thank you.

CORNISH: And NPR reporter Elissa Nadworny is here, too. She actually introduced us to both Adam and Ayiana.

NADWORNY: That's right. We've talked to each other before - been tracking their progress as freshmen.

CORNISH: Our first question comes from Destiny Henderson. She goes to Houston Academy for International Studies, and here she is.

DESTINY HENDERSON: I really am curious about how you build, like, a college community online. I'm not sure if I'm going to be all online or, like, hybrid or in person yet. And I want to still have, like, the freshman year experience where you're figuring everything out and getting to build, like, your lifelong friends from college. And I don't know if that's going to be possible. And it's nervous - it makes me nervous, rather.

CORNISH: So, Adam Ahamad, I want to start with you because you have joined clubs. Can you talk about what that process was like and if you were nervous going into it?

AHMAD: I was, but I found it quite easy. UC Berkeley has a club directory that I utilized. I reached out via email. I went on social media websites such as Reddit and Discord, trying to find members who are within those communities that I can engage with. And the only real piece of advice that I have when it comes to it is you're going to have to really engage, especially, you know, in an online format. Some people...

CORNISH: Meaning you've got to send that first email or first text to say, hi, please talk to me.


AHMAD: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. Yes.

CORNISH: Ayiana, for you, what were those initial attempts like to, as Destiny is saying, build community?

POLEN: So I'm more of a reserved person. For me, I really used, like, academics. We all have, like, group chats and stuff for our classes. And so, you know, instead of being quiet, if I needed a help or something, I would say in a group chat, like, hey, like, I'm struggling with this. Does anyone understand this assignment? And, literally, like, one of the girls that I'm close to now, she FaceTimed me and said, I'm struggling with this, too. Like, let's figure it out. And after that, like, we, like, talk almost every day. But for me it was difficult because I am reserved, but I still did want that sense of community.

CORNISH: I want to follow up with another question from Destiny. And I think this one, Ayiana, you can start with the answer. And here she is.

HENDERSON: I want to know if living on campus right now is worth the risk because living in a dorm is a big draw for any student, and I always wanted to be in one and, like, have that experience. So I wonder if it's worth the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

POLEN: So there's many factors that play a role into it - one, knowing how your school's operating. So knowing that I would get tested twice a week, knowing that it's, like, less than 200 of us on campus, knowing that the school has explicitly said, hey, if the numbers get too high on campus, or too high in Atlanta, we're shutting school down - and also knowing to have self-discipline, so wearing your mask, things of that nature. So I don't think there is a yes or no or, you know, black or white answer to it. I think it really depends on all the factors playing a role in your particular situation.

CORNISH: The next question is actually about selecting a school, and it comes from Logan Fleming (ph) from Windermere, Fla. And the pandemic has meant, to him, he's had limited opportunities to actually visit colleges in person.

LOGAN FLEMING: I haven't been able to experience the campus on foot when I normally would like to. I don't know the city around it. And I haven't been able to, like, speak in person with the tour guides, with people there. And so how do I know I'm making the right decision of my next four years?

CORNISH: Elissa, I'm going to start with you first. What are some things that you're seeing students - are doing or can do to get a sense of the colleges?

NADWORNY: Yeah. Well, the best advice I've heard from students is that they've reached out to current students to talk to. You can do this through the admissions office, but you can also just use social media. So talking to a student who's, especially this last year, lived through a COVID year, what's that been like? How have the supports been? I think the big things that students should look at when they're trying to pick an institution - of course, money. The finances are going to be top of mind. A great resource for that is the College Scorecard. This is going to show you graduation rates for institutions. It'll show you what the income postgraduation is for students, how much debt they owe. It's a really great resource to kind of compare colleges so you're not going in totally blind. Or just on feel and name recognition, which actually doesn't help you all that much.

CORNISH: Is there anything students can do if they are not offered enough financial aid - right? - to afford their first-choice school?

NADWORNY: Well, look; you filled out the FAFSA, which is the federal aid form. That information is pre-pandemic. So a lot of stuff happened in the last year, which means that right now when students are getting their financial aid offers, they aren't enough. So you can absolutely go back to your school and ask for more money. There's a great tool called SwiftStudent that helps you write the form letter that you need to submit to the financial aid office to say, look; all these things happened to me. My family maybe lost a job. COVID has impacted me. I need more money for school. And schools are ready for this. They know it's been a crazy year financially for families.

CORNISH: Our next student question comes from Emily Borbon (ph), who goes to John F. Kennedy High School in Denver.

EMILY BORBON: My first question was, how have professors helped students during the adjustment to online classes? I ask this because, like, it's been such a crazy time. And, like, for as long as I can remember, all my teachers have always said, like, your professors won't help you. They're going to be so much more mean to you than we are, that it's going to be so much harder. And doing this all online is, like, so stressful. Like, I have no idea how much more challenging that's going to be.

CORNISH: OK. We'll put aside the fact that Emily's teachers are scaring her going into college.


CORNISH: I don't know what that's about. But, Adam, do you have a response to her question about professors?

AHMAD: I do. I have found that professors are very understanding of the extenuating circumstances, that you can't control the fact that we're not all in a classroom means that we're not all being subjected to the same exact circumstances. I found myself extremely sick back in January and just emailed all my professors. No medical proof was required. They were very understanding, and I received extensions. Likewise, I've had some of my peers mention certain family issues that have came up, and their professors have been quite understanding, providing alternative exam dates for midterms and stuff of that nature. Communication is really key.

POLEN: And also, another thing that allows you kind of that ability to communicate with your teachers when you do have a situation and you need more time is always be present as a student. So make sure you are turning in the assignments on time. Make sure you are doing everything you need to do so that when you do have a situation, they will respond in a way that will favor you or favor your situation. So I think communication is also huge. And don't go in scared of this narrative that we kind of get in high school because it's really not like that.

CORNISH: All right. So we have one last question. This one is also from Emily.

BORBON: What would you have wanted to know going into this year that you think would have helped you during this crazy time? Like, what am I not going to be expecting?

CORNISH: All right, Adam, what would have helped you?

AHMAD: Oh. I mean, despite my involvement in various on-campus organizations, don't - just don't expect it to be the same capacity, the same caliber as it would, you know, during non-COVID, non-pandemic times. While still great - the social interaction is great - it's not the same. And so going into it with an open mind and understanding that you shouldn't be trying to achieve what was but should be looking forward to what is or what can be.

CORNISH: Elissa, for you?

NADWORNY: I heard from so many students that there were magic moments, too. I mean, yes, it's different from what it used to be, but there were awesome breakthroughs. I talked to a student who made a printmaking, like, situation in her home, like, at home, living with her parents. And her art professor was, like, walking her through Zoom, and she's, like, dipping things in bowls and making art that way. So I guess I would say the thing that surprised me was just the resilience. There are so many people who are trying to make this work on campus, virtually, in lots of different spaces. College expands your mind, and I think it's still doing that even in pandemic times.

CORNISH: NPR education reporter Elissa Nadworny and college freshmen Adam Ahmad and Ayiana Davis Polen sharing their wisdom from the past year.


CORNISH: You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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