Graduation, Financial Aid, Admissions — For This Year's College-Bound, The Future Is In Turmoil

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This spring was supposed to be an exciting time for Xander Christou. He’s a senior in high school in Austin, Texas, and was looking forward to all the fun: prom, senior skip day and of course, graduation.

But all that’s now out the window. “There’s a sense that it’s incomplete,” says Christou. The school district has closed until April 3rd and Christou says he has this feeling that a unique chapter in his life — senior year — is slipping away. “They’re just parts that we may never get to experience.” One big disruption: any attempt at making plans for next year. “We’re in the midst of college decisions,” he says, and the coronavirus has “really thrown a wrench into a number of things.”

Christou spent most of last fall like many high school seniors: researching and applying to schools. He planned to spend the spring visiting some of the campuses he was accepted to. “Online, the colleges are just names and logos and programs,” he says, “nothing will compare to actually being on campus and speaking face-to-face with current students.”

But with so many colleges shutting down, all of those visits have been cancelled — including one “candidate weekend” on NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus that was all-expense paid. “I was very excited for that,” he says, “all I had to do was pack and go to the airport.” He would have gotten back home last week. The return flight, without him on it, got cancelled too.

Of course it’s more than just the visits — he’s waiting on his financial aid offers, too. Money, and how his family is going to pay for college, has become even more important.

The admissions calendar, upended.

College admissions officials around the country are feeling much of the same sense of turmoil as students like Christou. “There’s never a good time for a pandemic, but from an admission standpoint, there really couldn’t be a worse time,” explains Jon Boeckenstedt, who oversees admissions and financial aid at Oregon State University.

For many schools, March and April are when they send out the bulk of acceptances or denials. Financial aid packages are sent out, too — setting up the options for how to pay. Traditionally, May 1 is “decision day,” the deadline for students to submit a deposit to hold their spot at a school for the following fall semester. But there’s a growing movement this year to shift the deadline back a month, to June 1, to give students and families more time.

“Every parent and student is going through a difficult time just managing to deal with the uncertainty,” says Boeckenstedt. “It’s really unfair to say, well, we have our deadlines, and come hell or high water, you had better decide by May first.”

Oregon State, where Boeckenstedt works, made this change and, as of Wednesday, about 200 other schools had committed to the new deadline, according to ACCEPT, a non-profit that is tracking the change.

“I can’t fathom any family in six weeks from now saying, ‘I know where my student is going to go to college and I know I can afford it,’ ” explains Marie Bigham, who runs ACCEPT and advocates for social and racial justice in the admissions process. “There are too many unknowns and storms up in the air. Asking someone to make a really expensive decision in the midst of this is really unfair. It just feels wrong.”

Other disruptions complicate admissions

As high schools move to online classes — some for the remainder of the school year — and in some places, letter grades transition to a simple pass or fail, many students are worried about the impact that will have on their high school transcripts. In some places, even getting a final transcript and sending it off to colleges may be difficult, with buildings closed down and office staff working remotely. Guidance counselors are also worried that it may even be hard to confirm that students have actually graduated — since many states rely on end-of-year grades and testing to confirm that status.

Admissions tests have also been jumbled: Advanced Placement (AP) tests will be given online, without multiple choice questions. The ACT has rescheduled the April 4 test to be given in June because of COVID-19, and the College Board has cancelled the SAT test scheduled for May. For now, the SAT scheduled for June is still on the books.

Because of this, a number of schools, including Oregon State and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, have announced they will be test-optional for the class of 2021. Experts wonder whether this might be the beginning of many more schools going test-optional.

Case Western had been weighing test-optional policies, thinking that maybe in a year or so they’d make a decision. “Up until a week ago, I would not have predicted where we would ultimately come out on this,” says Rick Bischoff, who oversees enrollment there. “But understanding how much turmoil this is injecting into the process, it’s just so clearly, in our view, the right thing to do.”

Colleges are also bracing for an influx of adjustments to financial aid packages. For many families, their financial situations are changing. Estimates predict that millions of Americans are filing for unemployment this week. And the amount families thought they’d be able to pay come fall might be different now. “This is not unusual for financial aid offices,” explains Bischoff, but, “the volume will be unusual.”

Virtual tours and video chats

In addition to going test-optional, colleges are bulking up their virtual offerings in lieu of cancelled in-person events. Bischoff acknowledges that, for many students, a personal visit to campus can help in the decision process. Applicants can sit in on a lecture, or meet with current students to get a good feel for how a particular school might “fit.” But with these spring events cancelled, schools are moving online — with virtual tours, video chats with professors and online classes.

“Admissions offices are working hard to make sure [that] even if students can’t visit, they can still get a sense of a place,” explains Bigham, who’s been on the phone with admissions officers across the country.

She notes that campus visits have long been a source of highlighting inequity, as wealthy students are often able to take more advantage of these offerings than students who are unable to travel due to finances. Amid COVID-19 social distancing, virtual visits may be “flattening that privilege a little bit.”

But, she adds, “that does ignore the real inequity of broadband technology; that it is difficult to find in some communities, and that families can’t afford it.” Innovations in digital ways to see the campus are exciting — unless you rely on your school or public library to give you access. Those students may still be shut out.

Shut out in another way, too: With high schools closed, it may be harder to stop by a counselor’s office or get advice from a teacher regarding college. Even though many colleges are shutting their campuses, admissions and financial aid staff are still working and urge students to ask questions by phone, email or on recently-deployed chat tools on the college’s website.

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These days, lots of people are ordering for takeout or delivery. That’s if your local restaurants aren’t closed. Industry-wide, it’s chaos. Revenue is down or gone. Restaurant workers aren’t working. Here’s NPR’s Yuki Noguchi.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Just about every restaurant nationwide has been hit hard at once. That makes this disaster unique.

SEAN KENNEDY: The coronavirus epidemic – it’s unchartered territory for us.

NOGUCHI: Sean Kennedy is a spokesman for the National Restaurant Association. Restaurants of all stripes are in varying states of collapse, and that industry is the country’s second-largest private employer, with 15.6 million workers.

KENNEDY: It doesn’t matter if you’re a big chain or a small corner diner. You’re seeing the impact immediately, and you’re really questioning, how long do I need to be bracing myself for?

NOGUCHI: Melvin Rodrigue lived through Hurricane Katrina. It destroyed his home and shut down his famed restaurant Galatoire’s in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

MELVIN RODRIGUE: I think Katrina is going to prove to be a cakewalk compared to this.

NOGUCHI: And it all went down with breathtaking speed. Last Sunday, Louisiana officials first raised the idea of a shutdown. Then things accelerated. By Monday, the mandated closure had moved up twice.

RODRIGUE: For a restaurant, you have to have certainty in order to operate. And those are three changes in one day, one 24-hour period.

NOGUCHI: Just like that, the economy seized up. Rodrigue is trying to adapt, turning his 115-year-old white-table restaurant into a takeout joint, using up fresh seafood that was supposed to go into iconic Creole specialties like shrimp remoulade and trout amandine.

Then there’s his dwindling supply of cash. Insurance won’t cover losses. There’s rent, utilities. He feels an urgent obligation to carry on for the sake of his 160 workers, most of whom he had to lay off. In between all this, he’s counseling waiters and sous chefs about how to stretch their budgets.

RODRIGUE: If you have the choice between buying a box of Hamburger Helper and going to the drive-through somewhere, you need to be as frugal as you possibly can for your own sake and your family’s sake.

NOGUCHI: And so you can see how the cycle keeps repeating onto itself. Many restaurant owners are searching for ways to help their staff. Some are trying to sell gift cards and giving proceeds to employees. A new federal law passed this week granting workers at smaller businesses up to two weeks of paid leave. But the Restaurant Association’s Kennedy says that would require restaurants to fund the leave, and most are already too cash-strapped. Reimbursement from the federal government, as well as any potential bailouts, might arrive too late.

KENNEDY: They simply aren’t going to have the financial wherewithal to fund that paid sick leave mandate.

NOGUCHI: The collapse has a massive impact on workers and their families. Carolyn Stromberg Leasure is set to give birth next week in Charlottesville, Va. But her chef husband lost his job this past week, which means they have no health insurance. It’s a terrifying prospect.

CAROLYN STROMBERG LEASURE: Really, I have a lot of anxiety. I have a lot of trouble sleeping.

NOGUCHI: Leasure says she’s overwhelmed with the chaos. She’s calling around to try to find insurance coverage. On top of that, she has health concerns about the birth itself. She decided to induce labor earlier, hoping to avoid overcrowded hospitals.

LEASURE: As a worker, like, losing your job a week before you’re having a baby – you find out that you don’t have insurance is a really big deal.

NOGUCHI: One that she hopes to try to resolve soon.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.