For the next few months, forget everything you know about college admissions and financial aid, especially for current high school juniors and seniors. This year is radically different and the dust is far from settled. What will college look like this fall? Even the experts don’t know — a recent Inside Higher Ed article listed 15 possible different scenarios.

Even with the confusion, there are eight steps families can take now to make this fall a better experience.

Public and private colleges are under tremendous financial strain. This will impact the programs they offer, the tuition they charge, the aid they make available and, possibly, their continued existence. You are committing for four years and you want to know that the school will be there for you. You might want to check the college’s financial condition, but that can be hard to do. One resource: Forbes published a report in November 2019 about the financial strength of colleges, which is online and worth reviewing.

How important is it to you that your college experience is “traditional,” with the atmosphere of in-person classes, dormitory living, sports, activities and a lack of social distancing? That might happen this year or it might not. Some students are investigating different gap year options, hoping college life can return to normal in 2021.

Surveys show that students also are reconsidering their top choice. Some are thinking of colleges closer to home, and others are switching to less expensive options. If you are having these thoughts, be aware that right now, they are normal. In the past, May 1 has been decision day, but some schools are giving students until June 1. If you need more time to decide, ask if you can get an extension. Also, be aware that every year, hundreds of colleges accept applications after May 1. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) posts a list on its website.

Colleges are used to micromanaging enrollment levels and characteristics of the incoming class. Not this year — they really do not know what to expect.

You can use this to your advantage. If you are an attractive candidate and have multiple acceptances, you can ask your top-choice school to increase your financial aid award. If you have been waitlisted, do not give up hope. Contact the admissions office to be sure they know of your keen interest in attending. If you are willing to withdraw your financial aid application, your chances of admission could appreciably go up at some schools.

Watch for innovation. Davidson College in North Carolina is deferring payment of this fall’s invoice for one year. Beloit College in Wisconsin changed from one semester to two half-semesters. Many schools, including Davidson and Cornell University, are going test-optional for next year’s applicants. Keep an eye on FairTest.org for the latest news on required testing.

For seniors, since you cannot visit schools this spring, ask to sit in on a current online class to get an idea of what virtual instruction might look like this coming fall. Contact the admissions office to see if this can be arranged.

If you are considering off-campus housing, check into the landlord’s refund policy if the campus needs to shut down. While colleges offered partial housing refunds this spring, most neighboring apartment projects did not.

For current college students, please be aware that every college has been awarded a large grant from the federal government that must be paid out to students who financially suffered from the virus. It is new and the rules on how this emergency aid will be distributed are not yet clear. If you have been financially impacted, contact your school’s business office to see if you qualify for any of this money. Watch your school email for more information.

College represents a major investment of your money and time. This year is unlike anything we have ever seen. Stay as informed as you can, and do not hesitate to ask necessary questions and advocate for your needs.

Jonathan West is director of College Funding Group, LLC in Richmond and can be reached through: www.TheCollegeCompanion.com

Contact him at: jwest@collegefundinggroup.com

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