Caitlin Taylor would describe her post-high school plans in the era of Covid-19 as “ever changing.”
The Lyndon Institute senior originally thought she would be headed to the University of Rhode Island to study international business in the fall. But when her high school pivoted to online learning in March, she quickly realized she was the type of student who needed one-on-one attention to do well. So she changed course and committed to Bishop’s University instead, a small school with some 2,400 undergraduates in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
Taylor wants to live on campus with two of her best friends, and she’s even paid her housing deposit. But Bishop is waiting until June 1 to announce plans for the fall, including whether instruction will take place in-person or remotely. If it ends up going online, Taylor says she’ll withdraw and go to the state college nearby.
“I would rather save money and go to (Northern Vermont University) for a year,” she said.
Prospective students have historically had to commit to colleges by May 1. But many – if not most – schools are extending their deadlines. And for both colleges and students, the picture for fall is as murky as ever.
“It’s really at this point impossible to predict because there’s so much uncertainty out there,” said Susan Stitely, president of the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges, which represents 11 private colleges and universities.
Lindsay Carpenter is an outreach counselor with the Vermont Student Assistance Corp., and, through a federal TRIO grant, works in six high schools in the Northeast Kingdom recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to college.
“Taking the pandemic out of the equation, making a college decision is difficult in and of itself because we’re trying to ask 17- and 18-year-olds to make what feels to them like a very permanent decision,” she said.
Now, students are wondering if they should leave Vermont at all. And they’re unsure if schools will even be able to offer in-person instruction when the fall rolls around.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a combination of a lot of students who decide to stay in-state, with a lot of students who decide not to go to college,” she said.
The coronavirus crisis has hit higher education at a particularly vulnerable moment for the sector, as schools compete for an ever-shrinking pool of potential applicants. In Vermont, four private colleges closed last year, and just last month, the leadership at the Vermont State Colleges System, which has long been on rocky financial footing, nearly chose to shutter three campuses.
The pandemic, meanwhile, has required schools to return millions to students in room and board fees – a critical source of revenue for residential colleges – and make significant investments in technology. And there is a widespread concern that Covid-19, and the recession it has wrought, could generally depress enrollment.
One type of higher education institution might stand to gain. Community colleges typically see upticks in enrollment in economic downturns, as adults return to school in an attempt to update their skills. Adam Warrington, the director of admissions at the Community Colleges of Vermont, says that while that could happen, the pandemic-induced economic slowdown feels different than the prior recession.
“There was no chance that some miracle drug or vaccine or something was going to get created soon and everything would go back to normal. I don’t think that’s going to happen. But we’re still sort of kind of waiting on what’s going to happen next,” he said.
CCV, which enrolls students on a rolling basis, will likely have a clearer idea what the fall will look like after July 4, he said. And it’s entirely possible that the school will see an increase in enrollment from high school grads who choose to start college at CCV instead of at a pricier, residential or out-of-state schools.
“It’s not unreasonable to think that students and families are going to say ‘let me stay close to home. Let me sort of focus on my personal and family’s safety and save a little money,’” he said.
On the other end of the higher education spectrum, the most selective schools – like Middlebury – have the option of significantly increasing their overall acceptance rate to meet their enrollment targets or of dipping into their waitlists. But non-elite, traditional undergraduate schools do not have that luxury.
Schools have raced to offer new deals in an effort to stand out from the pack. St. Michael’s College, for example, has announced a minimum $25,000 scholarship to any Vermonter who chooses the Colchester school, as well as two free courses to any student who transfers in.
And in the days leading up to May 1, many colleges – including in Vermont – also scrambled to announce that they would be open for in-person instruction in the fall. “Colleges are Deluding Themselves,” one college president from Texas wrote in response in The Atlantic.
Tom Greene, the former president of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, agrees that schools are deeply worried about their value proposition if they are forced to go online, and “walking a fine line” as they message their intentions to reopen in the fall.
“If they’re not hedging at all, then I think there’s a possibility they’re making a promise they can’t keep,” he said. “Because we don’t know what the fall will look like. Things are still evolving rapidly.”
Doing online learning well is difficult, Greene said, and building a college’s capacity to deliver good remote options “takes an incredible investment.”
“What you’re seeing from residential, undergraduate institutions who are moving to online is a far weaker educational experience,” he said. “And I think the faculty and administrators would all acknowledge that, because they’re not constructed to do that. And is that experience worth $60,000 to $70,000 a year in some cases?”
Alina Chmura, a senior at Stowe High School, would likely answer no. She says she balked when the University of San Francisco, which she originally hoped to attend in the fall, told her they wouldn’t be discounting their tuition if they were forced to go online. So instead, Chmura will go to the University of Vermont.
“I got a really nice scholarship there, and I’m pretty excited actually. I was pretty bummed about it at first, but I think it happened for a reason,” she said.
An avid surfer and skateboarder, Chmura has dreamed about winding up in California since she was a kid. But she said she was nervous about moving across the country in the middle of a pandemic – and wary of making a financially risky move.
“It didn’t make sense to put myself in that much debt. The economy is pretty screwed right now,” she said.
In southern Vermont, VSAC counselor Holly Hammond says the students she works with are “not really thinking as much as I’d wish about Plan B.”
“Because who wants to think about that? They just want to go to college,” she said.
Hammond works with about 100 students at high schools in Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, Windsor and Townshend, also through the federal TRIO grant program.
A few of the students Hammond counsels are thinking about taking a gap year, or at least looking at cheaper, in-state back-ups in case the colleges they’ve committed to announce the fall semester is going to be online. But most aren’t.
“I don’t want to be the voice of doom and gloom, but I am trying to weave that into discussions with students – to come up with a plan,” she said.
Hammond thinks colleges, deeply anxious about their own bottom lines, are holding off on announcing their plans for the fall – or being “intentionally vague” about them – in order to hold on to students. But she suspects many colleges will ultimately have to go remote and that, just as they feared, students will either take a year off or opt for a much cheaper alternative.
“I think it’s going to be a sudden shift,” she said.
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