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If a high school senior who was planning to matriculate to college prior to the arrival of the pandemic were to ask me whether or not they should go ahead with those plans in the fall, here’s what I would say: 

Almost definitely, probably. 

High school seniors are experiencing lots of disruption and loss, even those who have not been directly affected by the pandemic. Being denied prom, graduation, spring sports and arts performances, those final weeks of senior year where you don’t have to do much of consequence as everything winds down and you grapple with the impending transition to increased independence…these are meaningful things to the people these things are meaningful to.

I wasn’t really one of those people – I lack an appreciation for nostalgia, particularly when we’re supposed to be nostalgic about the present – and truth be told, I think we’re talking about a relatively small subset of post-secondary students who have the opportunity to participate fully in all these rituals, but these are the students who, for lack of a better word, “matter,” to colleges and universities in terms of the bottom line. 

Sure, all students “matter,” but I’m talking about the students who are considering going out of state or to privates, the ones who bring the tuition dollars that keep institutions alive under our present system.

These are the students who could afford a so-called “gap year,” who are willing and able to delay matriculation because they have a safety net under them. They are the ones who have a choice to make, as opposed to those who are constrained by circumstances and lack of resources.

My belief is we are looking at far more students not matriculating not out of choice, but because the economic disruption has left them unable to figure out how pay for it, but despite the students who have choices being a decided minority of those who access post-secondary higher education in a given year, they are the group we are obsessed with.

They are the group for whom the U.S. News rankings exist. They are the group for whom many public institutions have been chasing “prestige,” so ever higher tuition can be justified, so the degree can be said to be “worth it.” 

These are the students who will feel let down if they do not have the proverbial first-year, residential college experience, the students who say they have no desire to complete an online degree, and given the uncertainty, maybe it makes sense for them to just sit out for year.

I get it, they have been looking forward to their “college dream,” but now even under the most optimistic scenarios, fall will not be anything close to what they were anticipating.

All that said, I think in most cases it is probably a better idea to go ahead and start one’s college career – even if it is all online courses – rather than delaying. I say this as someone who believes that instruction is likely to be entirely or significantly done from a distance, rather than face-to-face in the fall.

There’s a few reasons for my recommendation.

One, what students are anticipating in terms of their online education at college is not the same as what they’ve experienced in the emergency pivot to online instruction during their senior year of high school. I’ve seen lots of evidence of extreme dedication from faculty, staff, and administrators at institutions to create the best possible learning experiences online come fall. It will not be perfect, but at most places, it won’t be for lack of trying.

Two, we do not know when the college dream of the full residential experience these students have been hoping for will return, if ever. If that experience is the reason to go to college – and I’m a believer in the value of those experiences – it may simply not be in the offing any time soon.

Three, if we are able to return to some semblance of normalcy in Fall 2021, I believe there will be a real benefit to already having completed credits online prior to making the transition to fully residential undergraduate life. Think of it as one part of what can be a difficult transition already being handled.

Four, there’s an obvious opportunity cost to delaying matriculation. If there’s an alternate path that is more tempting than college during this period, great, run towards it, but if it’s a matter of simply sitting in stasis for a year, hoping we’re going to return to “the dream,” that doesn’t sound wise.

Most students don't have any opportunity to experience residential higher education. Many others do two or three years on their way to a four-year degree. Besides, you're not missing out on anything that someone else gets to do.  

Lastly, a caveat. 

Students will want to make sure that their institution of choice seems well-positioned to handle the uncertainty we’ll all be facing for the foreseeable future. I would be wary of spots that are signaling an intention to open for face-to-face instruction by hook or by crook that don’t have specific and concrete plans for students who would prefer distance learning either because of choice or necessity.

If a school looks like it values your tuition dollars over your well-being, that’s a warning sign. 

I cannot say whether a student should choose a local community college over an original choice of residential school other than to say that students will find quality instruction at their local CC and it is not a sacrifice in terms of what will be learned. I don’t know enough about credit transfer, whether or not schools will honor admission offers next year, or any other of a number of factors that have to be considered when making that kind of choice, but those considering it should take the time to inform themselves.

But if a student was planning on starting college in the fall, provided the resources to do so are still available, I think it’s best in the vast majority of cases for students to go for it, no matter what college may look like at the time.

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