Unfortunately, the best answer could be, “who knows?”

Is your college welcoming students back to campus for the fall semester, going completely online, shutting down entirely . . . or doing something else? And is it cutting tuition or giving refunds if it is not planning to deliver what it promised?

Because North American colleges and universities are not run by one governing body, each college and university is answering those questions differently. We seem to have entered a chaotic period in higher education. Hopefully, we will never see this level of uncertainty again.

What Colleges Are Doing

Recently, reporter Joey Hadden wrote an article for Business Insider that summarizes how 25 schools are making plans for the coming academic year. You will want to read this article. If you do, you will quickly see that different colleges’ plans differ in stark ways. Here are only a few examples of what Ms. Hadden found:

  • The University of Texas at Austin plans to reopen physically in August but will shift to online classes after Thanksgiving.
  • The University of Washington will announce its plans in late June through early July.
  • Rice University plans to reopen on August 24 but cautions students that those plans could change.
  • Boston University is planning to offer both remote and on-campus classes in the fall.
  • Brown University will announce its plans on July 15.

Clearly, no one plan is in place. But if you are planning to attend college this fall, the real question to consider is, what is your college doing?

There are many issues to consider and if you are a current student or the parent of one, they are already on your mind.

What Plans Are in Place for Student Health and Safety?

As a student or a parent, it is essential to understand what plans a college is making to prevent students from becoming ill. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Where can you find and read the college’s plans for campus and student safety?
  • What are the college’s plans to assure the safety of students?
  • Will the school be testing students and monitoring their health?
  • Will the school clean and disinfect its facilities according to guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and who will supervise those activities?
  • What protocols has the college established for protecting students in all on-campus settings, including classes and classroom buildings, libraries, dormitories, dining halls, athletic facilities, and more?
  • What on-campus medical services are available and when are they available? Also, what hospitals are near campus?
  • Does the college have plans in place for what will happen if there is an increase in the number of covid-19 cases in the future – in other words, if the pandemic spikes again?

How Comfortable Are You with the College’s Plans for Student Health and Safety?

Yes, the college has plans and procedures in place for protecting students from becoming ill. But that is only part of the story, because as a student or a parent, you need to feel assured that the school’s plans are good enough. Even though you might have paid fees and hesitate to risk losing them, the prime concern should be safety.

How Could Uncertainty about Classes Affect Your Long-Term Plans?

If your college is undecided about when it will open and how it will offer instruction, how are you supposed to plan your education and career? It is a challenge, but here are some considerations to weigh:

  • What year are you in your program of college study? If you are entering your first year, for example, it might make sense to decide that taking some classes online or starting classes late during your first semester will not derail your overall education, or look bad on your resume after you graduate. But in different years, different issues might come into play. If you are entering your second year, for example, will canceled or online classes hamper your ability to fulfill core curricular course requirements of choose your major? And if you are entering your third or fourth year, will canceled classes hurt your ability to complete the requirements for your major course of study?
  • Will virtual courses adversely affect education or preparedness for graduate or professional school? If you are pre-med and online offerings have replaced laboratory courses, for example, will that hurt your chances of getting into medical school? Granted, some medical schools are making special accommodations for such situations now, but it is important to speak with an academic advisor at your college to understand what problems could be caused by canceled or online courses.

What about Costs?

For reasons that are often understandable, many colleges and universities have not announced their policies about refunding tuition or fees if they cancel classes, start classes late or shift classes to an online format. Colleges with smaller enrollments and endowments are experiencing heightened levels of fear about their finances and, in some cases, even about their ability to open.

As a parent or a student, that uncertainty trickles down to you. And while you have every right to demand information about how the college’s plans will affect what you will pay, you could be in a difficult situation, for reasons like these:

  • You or your son or daughter worked very hard to get into a great college. Do you want to complain and jeopardize that over a few thousand dollars?
  • You feel that in addition to paying for classroom instruction, you are also investing in a prestigious degree or a career credential. Again, do you want to jeopardize that? Where does the value reside in what you are paying for?
  • You don’t want to jeopardize your future with the college in question. You anticipate that what will happen in the coming year will only be a part of your overall experience with the college. How do you evaluate that and make a smart decision?
  • You are relying on the financial aid package that the college has offered. Even though things are uncertain about the coming term or even year, you don’t want to set up an adversarial relationship that could jeopardize scholarships or loans.
  • Your college’s rules make it unattractive to take a gap year or time off. Fair or unfair, some colleges do not want to allow students to take gap years – or do not want to give tuition refunds if students do. When a college’s finances are uncertain, that uncertainty often gets passed on to students and their families.

What Can Students and Parents Do to Limit Uncertainty and Make Smart Plans?

If you are about to enter your first year of study at a college, try to establish and maintain a cordial and regular relationship with the admissions and financial aid officers who you have been in touch with during the admissions process.

And if you or your son or daughter have already begun studies at a college, establish and strengthen strong lines of communication with professors and academic advisors. The more good advice and perspective you can get from people on the inside of your college or university, the better prepared you will be to make plans for the coming year.

We wish you all the best for a successful 2020-21 academic year.

We Invite You to Explore All Your College and Career Options. . .

Participate in the National Career & College Pathway Study to gain new insights about making educational decisions that align with your interests, passions, and aptitudes. Participants will receive information on college and career opportunities that match their interests.


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