The global coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the college landscape; here are ways you can pivot and keep your planning on track.

COVID-19 upended the world in 2020, interrupting many aspects of life, including college planning.

One approach to quelling the spread of the coronavirus – social distancing or the limiting of groups of people – forced major changes across public spaces, workplaces and schools at all levels. Remote, virtual, online and Zoom became commonplace words and actions.

The on-campus experiences that many college students have known or expected, like dorm living and lecture hall classes, were shuttered or drastically changed. So too were some admissions activities, like campus tours, interviews and testing.

For families with college students or college-bound students, the ripple effects of the pandemic may impact your experiences into and throughout the 2022 academic year. Some of the uncertainties around having students on-campus for periods of time versus fully remote learning will challenge your best college planning efforts.

Here are 5 things you should know about college planning now: 

  1. Don’t shy away from appealing financial aid awards or updating your financial aid application

Economic losses due to the coronavirus pandemic are widespread and deep, cutting across businesses, governments and families. If your family has been negatively impacted by COVID-19 due to job loss, other loss of income or other extenuating circumstances, it’s important to notify schools and provide updated information for their review.

Any previous financial information you provided was based on past tax years and asset values that may have declined due to the pandemic, so they do not accurately reflect what’s happening today. Consider recalculating your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is the number schools use to determine financial need – try Finaid for a quick EFC estimate.

Check your school’s website or financial aid office to determine their review process. Also, you should be prepared to provide documentation that supports your change in circumstances.

If you need some help getting started, you can find templates of financial aid appeal letters by visiting SwiftStudent.

2. College remains a buyer’s market for the majority of schools, so expand your list of schools to consider

With the exception of the Ivy League schools and a few others, most schools find filling their freshman classes challenging. The pandemic will exacerbate this problem for many institutions, especially considering uncertainties related to on-campus instruction and student housing. This may have families questioning the costs and value of attending college or specific schools right now.

Some students are postponing college, considering schools closer to home or simply looking for less expensive schools. Competitive headwinds remain strong, and schools will need to work harder to boost their student enrollment. For several years now, schools have used tuition discounts as a recruiting tool to attract more students. For families that really want to lower their college costs, they should definitely expand their list of colleges to consider and be on the lookout for better deals.

There’s also a new component to consider when it comes to college planning – Distance Learning capabilities. Although the pandemic forced most students to online classes at some point, Distance Learning or remote/online learning is not a new educational method. Some schools had already integrated online learning into their infrastructures in recent years, so they are equipped with education software platforms and faculty experienced in teaching online. For more insights on schools and their Distance Learning capabilities, visit Educate to Career College Rankings 2020 update

3. The financial health and viability of some schools will degrade, so learn more before you apply

Knowing a college’s financial health is an important part of college planning. Even before the pandemic, many schools were already financially stressed, and some hadn’t even fully recovered from the Great Recession of 2008. Schools with deep-rooted economic challenges can be a hurdle to students graduating on time. A lack of funding leads to actions like cuts in faculty and fewer available classes. Plus, a school’s potential closure would force families to spend additional time and money seeking admission to another institution.

A few organizations are now rounding up this kind of data as there is currently no consolidated information tool available. Check out Edmit College Financial Health Center and Forbes 2019 College Financial Health Grades as good starting points.

college planning during covid-19

4. More schools have SAT/ACT test optional policies, but read the fine print

The need for social distancing to help contain the spread of the coronavirus led to limitations in offering the SAT/ACT, as the exams are normally only administered in person.

To overcome the challenge of students not being able to visit testing sites, more schools opted to relax their testing admissions requirement and go test-optional, meaning if students choose to submit their test scores, they will be accepted as part of an application, but if the test scores are not submitted, students will not be penalized in the admissions process.

A few dozen schools have implemented test blind policies, meaning they will not consider any test scores in the admissions process, even if students submit them. As you go about your college planning, knowing this information can help you put together your applications.

Additionally, as test scores are also often used to determine merit aid awards, some schools are also awarding merit aid without having a student’s test scores.

Visit FairTest.org for an updated list of test-optional and test-blind schools.

As not all schools have adopted a test-optional policy or may have exceptions to the test-optional policy, such as for students in certain majors or students who may not have experienced any difficulty sitting for the exams, please consult a school’s website for more details.

5. Extracurricular activities can look different than before, so it’s ok to explore new ones

With the shuttering of schools and limitations on group gatherings, many college bound students can’t engage in extracurricular activities as they have in the past, such as sports, theater or volunteering. Understandably, admissions officers may ease their expectations related to such traditional activities.

However, given the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, students have an opportunity to approach extracurricular activities from a different perspective. Being able to shed light on how a student spent their time during the pandemic can also provide the admissions counselor with insight into the student. It can help them find the qualities they’re looking for – commitment, character, leadership, maturity, etc. Students should explore meaningful activities, whether it’s learning something new, volunteering remotely or providing family support through work or caregiving.

Also, for students interested in sharing their pandemic related stories, an optional question on the impact of COVID-19 has been added to the CommonApp Additional Information section.  

Families working within the college landscape today or in the near future face some new challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic. Shifts away from on-campus life and other group activities will continue to disrupt the normal college experience and college planning for a while longer. And you may have more to do right now, like keeping up-to-date with the latest happenings and keeping in touch with schools and counselors. Don’t be deterred on your college planning journey. College Money Smart is here to help too.

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