A Letter To College Students On What To Do This Fall

Dear College Students,

This is anything but a normal year for you. Deja Vu!  I had written to you back in April during what I had hoped would be the height of the pandemic. Sadly, it turns out it was not. Coronavirus cases continue to rise at a rapid rate in many parts of the country. I truly feel for you. Experiencing a health crisis is tough enough, but with an economic downturn, it may have already caused major repercussions for you and your family. Hopefully, you managed to get a summer job and socked some money away. Have you already decided what to do about going to college this fall? Many of your universities or colleges have already determined what to do. Some schools are still making their final decisions.

Make no mistake, this situation sucks especially if you are a freshman. Going to college is a lifetime experience filled with intellectual, cultural, and social values. Making longtime friends, engaged in learning, and planning your career is your initiation into independence. This is a teachable moment for you. Things happen out of your control that change your plans. It happens …. all the time. Hopefully, this pandemic is a once in a lifetime event.

I’m Kind Of In Your Camp Too

As a professor, I too am experiencing this disruption to the coming academic term. My college students are from a diverse community college in an urban setting. Their communities have been among the most severely impacted by the pandemic. Most work while attending school. Many are first responders or working in essential roles as healthcare workers while taking care of family members. While this letter is for them, I am writing to all college students.

Our college is going largely online on a synchronous basis meaning we will meet online at a scheduled together, however, recordings will be available who need more flexibility because of work schedules. I am revamping my online materials to the best of my abilities for my business majors in my law, marketing, and finance classes. The spring term was like a fire drill for students across the country. We need to do better.

What Are Your Choices For The Fall Semester?

A hint: none of the choices will give you a traditional experience. Colleges and universities have been announcing plans over the past few weeks. The Chronicle of Higher Education had been tracking a list of announced plans by higher education. Initially, a consensus back in late April seemed to indicate that a majority (63%) of schools were having in-person classes only,  online classes only (7%), hybrid classes (7%), and 9% were undecided. Classes will likely be mostly online to mostly in person. Student housing agreements have likely been amended to reflect new limitations on campus. Should there be an outbreak, refunds will not be available.

Each college has been reviewing its final plans as the Fall semester approaches taking into account the respective situations they face. Frankly, none of the choices are ideal but reflect the reality of this continued health crisis. College administrators are balancing the needs of their students along with the heavy financial costs that come with opening campuses for classes. Chancellor Timothy White pegged a $25 million cost per week for Cal State University. The cost for keeping students and employees of the University of California could be as high as $1 billion. It is not like most higher education institutions are rolling in funds.

Options At College: No One Size Fits All


In-Person Classes

Having in-person classes, that is, a return to normalcy, may represent the highest risk, particularly if they are of full size. Most schools are planning for smaller classes so that social distancing can be maintained. Masks, of course, will be required on campus. Plans to limit student density may require staggered schedules between classes, activities, events, and dining. Even showers need to be arranged according to a timetable.

Can you picture the amount of work, debate, and thought that has to go into this potential logistics nightmare?  Stringent precautions must be put in place and taken by students known for their socialization and invincible attitudes that they don’t need to be protected.

High Costs May Be The Financial Straw That Breaks The Camel’s Back

The financial costs for these precautions are likely to be high. This may be potentially limiting for financially strapped higher ed institutions to handle this. Even before the pandemic, colleges were facing declining enrollment and lost on-campus revenue. For many schools, the pandemic may be the financial straw that breaks the camel’s back. However, the foregoing “in-person classes only” option may mean lower enrollment and needed funds.

Some universities have been moving up the start of the semester to mid-August or delaying classes into October. Alternatively, some students will be on campus staggered by year. Princeton’s plan is to have their freshmen and juniors be on campus in the fall with sophomores and seniors returning Spring 2021. Most of the university classes will be available remotely.

Virtual Only Classes

The remote learning option seems to be the least risky of all options with the least difficulty for administrators. Colleges have been pointing out that the campus population needs to consider not only their students but faculty, administrators, staff, and maintenance employees. However, the point of college campuses is to interact with large groups of students from varied backgrounds. While students may realize cost savings by the elimination of room and board, the campus experience is lost. According to two recent surveys, 68% of Americans say if remote learning is going to happen, college tuition costs should drop. That is not likely.

The Digital Divide Makes This Unsuitable For Some

On the other hand,  there is a large swath of the country–rural counties– with spotty or poor broadband connectivity. This digital divide handcuffs students who depend on their college campuses for their technology needs. High-speed internet connectivity service is too expensive for families of modest means. Students may not have readily available laptops once they are home. During the spring term, our college, as well as many across the country, made laptops hastily available to those in need. However, this is a bandaid, rather than a solution, to a major gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not.

Hybrid Classes

This option may sound like the best of both worlds. While most schools plan to have every course available online, staggered small in-class settings, designed to space out students will be offered. Harvard, Princeton, and Yale are adopting this model and their decision will likely influence others. Their plans will be to limit their student population on their campuses staggered by year. For example, Princeton’s plan is to have their freshmen and juniors be on campus in the fall with sophomores and seniors returning Spring 2021. Most of the university’s classes will be available remotely. Harvard has targeted a 40% density level on its campus and there will individual rooms for students, rather than dorms.

The financially endowed schools can do this better than most colleges and universities, enhancing their students’ experience.

Alternatives To Going To College This Fall

As college plans are looking less appealing, college-bound seniors have been doing considering alternatives. According to a recent survey, as many as 20% of respondents who intended to go on to a four-year college have considered taking a gap year, attending a community college or taking online courses.

Take A Gap Year

A gap year refers to one year between high school graduation and going to college. You can do this as part of a structured program or independently. Typically, a gap year can provide many benefits such as recovering from academic burnout, working in your field, volunteering, travel, or internships. Creativity is your limit. Due to the pandemic, more students have been considering this option according to reported traffic (over 120%)  on the Gap Year Association (GYA) site who sponsors programs. Despite limitations to some activities given the widespread health crisis, check out their website for available volunteering and community programs.

Typically, approximately 90% matriculate in college within a year according to GYA. Their research has shown that a structured gap year serves to develop an individual into a more focused student with a stronger sense of purpose. According to a survey by Gap Year Association and Temple University, more than half of the individuals who took a gap year reported a GPA of 3.7-4.0.

If you are considering this route, check out your school’s policy and procedures regarding deferrals. Some colleges will automatically defer admitted students for the year while others will consider requests on an individual basis.

Community College Close To Home

I believe attending a community college is a solid cost-efficient alternative to a gap year if you are a college-bound senior. Of course, I am biased by virtue of my role as a professor at a community college.  If you are not pleased about your college’s plans but don’t want to take a gap year, attending a nearby community college for a term or two would allow you to pick up some credits while strengthening your academics. There are many benefits to attending community college that you can read in our post here.  You should make sure that your credits are transferrable to your chosen college.

Find A Job Or Continue Working

If you are not a freshman, you may not be able to take a gap year. Getting a new job in this environment with record unemployment may prove virtually impossible. However, if you have a  summer job you enjoy and are making money, consider talking to your employer about the possibility of staying on through a semester or the academic school year.

Use Your Time Wisely

Get your resume up to date and don’t worry about work or school gaps or internships.  Motivate yourself to use this time to be ready when the job market improves.  You are young, capable, and smart. Go with the flow and use this time wisely. Combining those traits with a good attitude will be an important part of your future value. Make time to work on your Linkedin profile so you can stay connected and be ready for networking.

Take any and every possible remote interview that may come your way whether it is for future internships, part-time work, or a job in your career. Recruiters should be sympathetic to your plight given their own experiences during the Great Recession. Given the strangeness of this year, it is possible you had a change of heart regarding your career and have been inspired by the scientists. Do some research during this time to learn about opportunities in these areas.

Life Lessons For Your Generation

We are all learning life lessons about this once-in-a-lifetime experience. This year has proven to be a year of trifectas. A health and financial crisis has come in tandem with the largest protests we have seen in this country.  Given your youth and greater pliability than most previous generations, there may be a role for you in the workplace or in your community. Generation Z has some defining characteristics that are essential for the workplace. As the only generation that can truly be called digital natives, you are always connected, comfortable with newer technology and social media.

Welcome some of the societal changes coming as a result of this pandemic. It is well known that you like to work either independently or collaboratively, and openly in work areas. Your generation is diverse and was raised with inclusivity. That can be helpful in an environment that wants to reduce social justice and income inequality. Be part of these changes.

Related Post: Financial Literacy May Help The Racial Wealth Gap

Final Thoughts

The pandemic has made this year extraordinarily difficult for college students. Of course, that is out of your control. However, you do have choices about how to use this time to your benefit. Rise up to this challenging time by actively pursuing what you want to do. Start out by doing some research to help you choose a viable path to move forward. We are not living in normal times but learn from this teachable moment. You have some decisions to make whether to go on to college based on your school’s plan or find worthwhile alternatives. You can do this by having faith in your abilities to succeed. Good luck this fall in whatever you decide to do!

Yours Truly,

Professor Linda

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