Christine Taggett is worried.
Left hanging with high school, many seniors and their families are anxious about what college will look like in the time of coronavirus.
“I’m fearful they are not going to have a fall semester at college,” said Taggett, who lives in Meredith.
Taggett’s fraternal twins, Branden and Rachel, will graduate from Inter-Lakes High School in June. Both have been accepted at the University of New Hampshire.
“I don’t want their first college experience to be remote learning,” said Taggett, whose older son, Tyler, is a senior at UNH.
Taggett said she is trying to stay positive, despite the cancellation of all her children’s graduation ceremonies.
College seniors are being robbed of a cherished milestone celebration at the same time they are being thrust into an uncertain job market, she said. Meanwhile, many are grieving over the lost last weeks and missed opportunity to say goodbye to classmates before campuses closed.
“I don’t know who I feel worse for, those paying for it, or the kids,” she said. “It’s not going to be the same experience.”
Taggett said she is grateful that Branden and Rachel decided to commit to UNH. She shares the opinion of many parents that New Hampshire enjoys a lower risk for infection and that if schools shut down, travel home will be easier and safer.
‘A life lesson’
“Everything is on hold because of the virus. You can’t plan your future. It’s tough,” said Keri Goulet, whose daughter, Riley, plans to attend Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., this fall.
“These poor kids were born into the terror attacks and now graduating into the virus. But in another way, it’s a life lesson, and they need to learn to deal with it in the best way possible,” said Goulet, of Meredith.
She and her husband, Peter, are concerned about the prospect of paying $68,000 in annual tuition and having the bulk of their daughter’s first year of college take place online.
New Hampshire students are joining thousands of their counterparts nationwide who are rethinking their fall 2020 college decisions. According to surveys by college advisory groups, reasons include a desire to be closer to home, disrupted financial situations and concerns that another semester may go digital-only.
Early signs point to more students staying home or delaying post-secondary education. The number of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was two percentage points lower at the beginning of this April than at the same time last year.
Adding to the uncertainty around college enrollment, traditional campus visits, which many students use to make their final school choice, aren’t possible. They have been replaced by digital options.
‘It’s pretty scary’
Colleen Ahlquist of Meredith said her daughter, Alannah, has wanted to go to college in New York City since she first visited the Big Apple as a little girl. Her dream was realized when she was accepted at Pratt Institute, where she plans to study film and video production.
Now, “we’re taking it each day at a time,” Ahlquist said. “We can’t make a decision on anything.”
The Ahlquists recently received an email that Pratt currently plans to move students on campus this fall, but might have to begin the school year with remote learning.
Ahlquist said she is concerned that New York City remains the epicenter of the virus in the U.S.
“It’s been a hot spot. That’s pretty scary,” she said.
Welcome ‘no matter what’
One category of schools that could benefit from the economic crisis is community colleges. In tough times, more people enroll in two-year programs to improve their employment prospects.
With unemployment rates reaching record highs from a pandemic-related economic downtown, a spike in non-traditional student enrollment is likely, as adults seek new skill sets, certifications or degrees in an attempt to protect their jobs or stand out in pools of applicants.
Victoria Jaffe, director of marketing and development at Manchester Community College, said all community colleges in New Hampshire are planning for a range of scenarios this fall. That includes on-campus classes with social distancing, and access to online courses. “Even before the pandemic, our community colleges had considerable expertise in online learning and in ‘hybrid’ classes,” she said in an email.
“And for students graduating from high school this spring who face an uncertain college landscape, many will consider community colleges as safe places to enroll,” Jaffe said. “We are an affordable way to start college, as well as an option that prepares students for transfer to four-year universities.”
Marlin Collingwood, vice president of enrollment and student life at Plymouth State University, said all schools in the New Hampshire University System are moving full steam ahead to open in August.
That return is expected to include remote learning for students who can’t get to campus, with online classes likely for at least a semester, Collingwood said.
One of the first things PSU did six weeks ago is contact high school guidance counselors throughout New England to let them know the university was willing to work with any student who wanted to attend Plymouth. Missing transcripts and other hurdles caused by COVID-19 would not prevent their enrollment.
“We made sure to put together communications that stressed no matter what, students would have a home at PSU,” Collingwood said.
College ‘closer to home’
When the national health crisis began, many predicted it would be a boon to remote learning.
Although parents and educators have done an amazing job over the past six weeks, Collingwood said, the online educational experience is not the same as face-to-face interaction.
Collingwood understands why some students have said they don’t want to continue remote learning in college. Even so, student deposits are 20% ahead at PSU than at the same time last year.
The university’s rural location in central New Hampshire and small size of about 4,000 students have proven attractive to some. Collingwood said the university has heard from some students who were planning to attend out-of-state schools but chose to rethink that and stay closer to home because of parents’ worries about COVID-19 exposure and added travel.
“We are beginning to see contact coming in from students who were planning to go out of state and now they’re saying my mom doesn’t want me to go to Texas. PSU wasn’t their first choice, but they still want the residential college experience closer to home,” he said.
Looking local may trigger a real opportunity for smaller, community-based schools. What those schools have to offer — relative seclusion, smaller student populations, nearness to family and social support networks — could be in vogue again overnight. Parents might suddenly prefer the college one state or town away instead of a marquee university across the country.
Some college administrators predict that students struggling with COVID-19’s financial and psychological impacts could choose to stay closer to home, attend less expensive schools, defer their enrollment for a year or decide not to pursue post-secondary education at all.
As a result of the pandemic, on-campus student bodies are expected to be less diverse in the fall. Because of international travel restrictions, the population of foreign students, who typically make up 5% of total enrollment, may drop significantly.