As colleges extend their commitment deadline for the fall semester due to uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, I wanted to offer recent high school graduates (and by default their parents) some frank advice on starting college this fall.
For the past 20 years, I have worked in higher education at major institutions as a faculty member, business school dean, and vice provost for graduate and online education; needless to say, I have been in the belly of the beast.
Therefore, I need to be blunt about the situation—the fall semester will be a mess. Most colleges and universities are doing their best, but they have never had to deal with anything like this before. Best case scenario? You make it through the semester wearing a mask in your dorm room by yourself, barely recognizing your classmates in their masks. Worst case scenario? You hurriedly pack all your belongings one day in October to leave campus as the next COVID-19 wave hits. Both scenarios are horrible, and not what college is meant to be.
So here is my advice: Take a deep breath, recognize you are in control, don’t hurry making the decision, and know you have options.
To shed some light on the full spectrum of options available to you, consider the following tips.
Undertake a structured gap year
If you can, volunteer at a local nonprofit, pursue an internship with a bio tech startup, or write a book. You will get to college, do not worry—according to the Gap Year Association, 90% of students that take a gap year finish college on time, and with a higher grade point average. Longer term, gap year students report numerous benefits, specifically 75% reported that the gap year helped them land a job, 84% reported that it help provide needed career skills, and 77% reported it helped better inform their career decision.
You know where you want to go, but you are nervous about this fall. Fortunately, that big, brick college campus will be there in Fall 2021, and hopefully COVID-19 will not be there or is, at least, more controllable.
Furthermore, you are not alone in your uncertainty—U.S. News & World Report reported that 17% of students are considering delayed enrollment. In light of the circumstances, most colleges are loosening policies on deferring, so there is little risk, though you may have to pay a small fee to defer.
However, make sure you get a sense of the implications on scholarship commitments, financial aid, and choice of major. Highly competitive majors often hold a select number of seats. If you’ve secured one of these coveted seats, make sure you get it in writing.
Enroll in a community college
If you live somewhere with a community college—go there for a year, get some basic requirements out of the way, and begin to understand what interests you.
For example, in Massachusetts, if you get a B average or better, the Mass Transfer program guarantees admission into any state university or the UMass system. There are similar programs instituted nationwide. Importantly, if you plan to go onto a four-year institution and have one in mind, make sure you get a sense of their transfer policies, such as the nature and limit on incoming credits.
Attend a respected, regional institution
If community college is not your thing, find a great regional university in your area. Choose one close enough to home—so if things go sideways you can still make it to classes—but far enough away to give you the feel of a substantial college experience. Ideally, the school will give you the option of living off campus, if you don’t feel comfortable in a dorm room.
Take one or two online classes
While not a substitute for the on-campus experience, online learning provides a venue for self-development and experimenting. Online providers have countless free courses to get your feet wet and expand your universe outside your high school experience.
Be wary of taking online classes only to check off a box for college credit. Use the opportunity to broaden your view on the world, and yourself. Also, rather than focus on specific skills, try an online class that helps build critical thinking, self-management skills, and mental resilience, which will help you during this unprecedented time period.
Also, it’s important to take in account that college is about the relationships you build with your fellow students, faculty, and staff. Online learning cannot deliver those relationships, and you shouldn’t pay the same price as in-person classes. Some day, online learning may offer the full educational experience, but it is unlikely this will happen in a few months.
Start networking and reaching out
Regardless of how you spend the next year, it is very important to network, especially early in your career. Networking has gotten a little trickier in the age of social distancing, but it is still possible to start building your professional network. If you already know your major, seek out virtual conferences to attend within your planned area of study. Aside from learning, you will start to build relationships with potential mentors, employers, and colleagues.
Finally, if you have already committed to a college and your institution cannot adequately tell you their plans for the fall, don’t feel pressure to stick with your decision. If in your gut, you do not feel that your health and well-being is the institution’s number one priority—don’t go.
Student debt is bad enough under the best circumstances, but student debt when you are not getting the full college experience is infinitely worse.
In our lifetime, no generation has ever faced such uncertainty; if you can spend the next year in a way that will help you develop as a whole individual, you will be more prepared for what comes next.
Remind yourself earning a bachelor’s degree is only the beginning to your path of lifelong learning. Make sure you take this first step of many on your own terms.
Scott Latham Ph.D., is associate professor of strategy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell where he teaches strategy, organizational decline, and business model innovation. In the past 15 years, he has been privileged to teach more than 1,000 students and believes that higher education needs to get back to its core mission of teaching and helping students realize their full potential.