It took Sophia Serratore a while to decide where to go to college in the fall. For the past few months, she's made lists of pros and cons over and over, and it’s been the near constant topic of dinner-table conversations with her parents.
After hearing back from the dozen colleges she applied to, the 18-year-old senior from Norwood, Mass., narrowed her choice down to Boston College in Chestnut Hill. It wasn't an easy selection. “Just weighing in all of the factors to make that final decision,” she said, laughing nervously.
Serratore had ruled out schools that are farther away, including Hofstra University on Long Island, because she worries about a second wave of coronavirus hitting in the fall.
“If the schools do decide to go back and then we end up having that second wave, I want to be close enough so that if I do have to leave the school quickly, I’ll be able to access that school quite easily,” she said.
The pandemic is reshaping students’ choices and their decisions on whether to enroll right away as they face the deadline of Friday, May 1, for submitting deposits to most colleges. Many high school students, like Serratore, are also wondering whether they’ll be able to afford to go to college at all, given economic conditions. Some colleges have moved their deposit deadline back a month, to June 1, to give themselves more time to sort out their incoming first-year class.
“Students are really thinking about COVID in terms of the influence it might have on their college choice, but they’re not really panicked yet,” said Kim Reid, an analyst with the Boston-based research and advisory firm Eduventures. “It’s a very uncertain time.”
Reid works with colleges on how to recruit and retain traditional undergrad students. Earlier this month, her research team surveyed more than 7,000 college-bound high school students and found one in four believe the pandemic may force them to change their college choice. Students who are most likely to change their plans come from middle- and low-income families.
“These are the students that are very deeply affected,” Reid told WGBH News. “They’re worried about it.”
Reid said she’s starting to hear rumblings about students deferring for a year or demanding tuition discounts if classes remain online in the fall.
“‘If this is not the college experience that I imagined in my dreams, do I want to go? Do the colleges want me to go? Will they delay it? What would it look like?’” Reid said, ticking off a series of unanswered questions running though students' minds as their families prepare to make initial deposits. “I don’t think that the students have answers for that yet, and I don’t think that the colleges have answers for that yet.”
For now, though, the biggest concerns for students is that the virus will delay college or the economic crisis will prevent their families from being able to afford it.
“We realize that there are going to be families that are going to be hit pretty hard as a result of the coronavirus,” said Jim Roche, vice provost for enrollment management at UMass Amherst.
Like most colleges, UMass kept its May 1 deadline. But the state’s flagship university is making some exceptions and considering admissions and financial aid appeals for families that have lost income or have been unemployed due to the pandemic.
“We’re working on the assumption that, yes, we are going to see a lot more appeals,” Roche said. “I think it’s going to be a challenge to provide it for everybody.”
Despite the pandemic and economic downturn, Roche reported UMass is still on track to hit its target of 5,300 first-year students. “But anything could happen this year,” he added.
His advice for seniors still on the fence in these uncertain times?
“If you can tolerate certainly one semester of distance learning, you should absolutely go with your choice,” Roche said, signaling the university’s plans for the fall without confirming them.
Whatever schools decide to do, a recent survey found more than 40 percent of parents say they are either uncertain or would not send their child to college in a remote-learning scenario.
With so much up in the air, more and more students appear to be considering taking a year to work, volunteer or — if it’s even possible — travel.
“I think as the prospect of the fall semester on college campus looks like it might be online, that’s like an automatic eject button for a lot of students,” said Ethan Knight, founder of The Gap Year Association, a nonprofit based in Portland, Ore., that matches young adults with alternative opportunities post high school.
Knight said his organization has seen nearly a 50 percent increase in traffic on itswebsite compared to this same period a year ago.
“It’s jaw-dropping,” he said. “If you look at the pages students are finding, they’re finding accredited programs, which makes sense. If you’re going to go out in these uncertain times, you want to have as much solidity underneath you as you can.”
While most colleges say they won’t grant deferrals should classes remain online in the fall, Knight said many are still doing so for students who want to work or volunteer for a year. “That’s still something that they’re encouraging because they still see the benefits of taking a gap year,” he said.
In Norwood, Serratore said she’s not considering a gap year at this time. But the economic downturn did affect her and her parents' decisionmaking, she said.
“I was planning on working all summer, and now I’m not quite sure I’ll have that opportunity. And that would have been a significant amount of money that would have helped me pay for my tuition and other college fees,” she said.
Even if classes are still online in the fall, Sophia said she plans to enroll but she expects a tuition discount.
“Face-to-face interaction is invaluable,” she said. “I understand why some schools need to [keep current tuition rates]. I would just hope for some kind of a break.”
If colleges can’t re-open on time in the fall, with normal on-campus classes, they might have no other choice but to give her — and thousands of other students — a break.