I loved move-in day at our college. As admission counselors, we’d walk around the campus with our list of students. We’d find them in their assigned residence halls and welcome them as they lugged their futons and TVs from the car. We shook hands with their grinning dads and teary moms and even wore shirts that read, “Put Box Here” so families would, indeed, put boxes in our arms.

It was so exciting and always felt like a real celebration.

I can’t help but imagine the booooorrrrring move-in day this year. What’s it going to be like? Masks instead of “Put Box Here” tees? No more cookies and lemonade? Sanitized residence hall keys? (Well, actually, yes, I hope all of those things happen.)

Fall semester normally happens around Labor Day, and for many schools, that’s still the case. Of course, this year presents some stickier situations. You may have painstakingly helped your child make a college decision pre-COVID-19. Now, are you sure it was the right one?

One mom of a soon-to-be first-year student said to me, “My daughter heard from her university that they will have staggered eating times in the dining hall and they’re looking into possibly staggering the days of the week that kids attend face-to-face classes. I’m not sure whether the school itself is making the right decisions. I’m tempted to have my daughter sit out for this whole year, but I’m not sure that’s the best approach, either.”

Here are some truths:

  1. Nobody really knows how this virus will behave over the coming months.
  2. You may not know what to do. 
  3. It’s really easy to feel uncertain when you read expert opinions that explicitly state that it’s a mistake to go back to college in the fall. (There are some out there!)

Two-thirds of colleges are planning to welcome back students in person, while only seven percent are planning to hold classes only online, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking the plans of lots of institutions.

Let’s say the school your child is planning to attend intends to open per usual. Should your child go? Luckily, there’s more than one option. You may have strong opinions (and so might your student!) which may require lots of family discussions. 

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Option #1: Your Child Can Attend College as Originally Planned

Your child can certainly attend the school he originally chose as a high school senior, but life on campus will be very different. He might not even realize how drastic the changes might be. Here are some changes you can discuss with your soon-to-be first year (though all of this might be hard to visualize):

  1. Temperatures will be checked daily.
  2. Students may have to sign a housing contract and anyone who signs may not get a room.
  3. Your child may be required to wear a face mask indoors except in residence hall rooms or bathrooms.
  4. Your student will be required to physically distance from everyone.
  5. Anyone who doesn’t comply with the rules may face ejection from campus.
  6. Gatherings and extracurricular activities will be banned or limited.
  7. Dining hall food options will be only for grab-and-go items and there will be no bunched groups in any cafeterias. You may see staggered meal times.
  8. Social distancing will be imposed between professors and students.
  9. Students will only be allowed to enter and exit in certain doorways.
  10. Commons areas will be closed.
  11. Not everyone may go back to campus. Some campuses have discussed only having freshmen and seniors back on campus.

In an effort to prepare, some schools have even mailed special coronavirus kits to students, complete with face masks, thermometers and more. 

For those that will open, when is fall semester in college this year? Your child may not start till October or later as colleges and universities work to prioritize the health and safety of students, staff, faculty and their communities.

Option #2: Your Child Can Opt for Online Classes

If the school your child plans to attend is open and teaching online, your student can choose to stay home and take online classes. 

Note that while colleges and universities should be commended for a quick shift to online learning this past spring, the majority of that transition happened quickly. In addition, most students had already been on campus for a half of a semester and those students were familiar with the professor and how each class was being taught. 

In other words, online learning may not be a great start to a first-year experience. It’ll be more difficult for students to tap into writing, tutoring, career counseling and other resources instrumental to student success. This can be a major hurdle for vulnerable students. 

Furthermore, studies have shown that students who attend video lectures on the internet end up with a lower average test score, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. One particular study showed that Hispanic students, male students and students with low ACT scores and GPAs didn’t fare as well.

Option #3: Your Student Can Choose a Different, Less Expensive College and Do Online Classes There

The benefit to this is, of course, is that it’s cheaper! (A great reason to celebrate, right?!) 

The danger of this option (in my opinion) is that your student might never go back to the school he or she originally chose. This may be unfortunate if your family carefully chose the original school.

The less expensive school may have wonderful programs and have every bit as wonderful of resources as the original school. However, make sure the following are available:

  • A high four-year graduation rate
  • High retention rate after freshman year (in other words, do students go back after freshman year?)
  • High internship and job placement rate
  • Transferable AP and college credits (particularly if your child wants to transfer back to the original college) — you’ve got to do deep research here!
  • Quality of online instruction may need to be evaluated 

More elite (read: more expensive) colleges aren’t always better. I always chuckle when I come across this older study, from 1999:

Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale compared students who entered Ivy League and similar schools in 1976 with students who entered less prestigious colleges the same year. Krueger and Dale studied what happened to students who were accepted at an Ivy or a similar institution, but chose instead to attend a moderately selective school. 

Here’s the kicker: These students had the same income 20 years later as the elite college grads. Krueger and Dale found that for students bright enough to win admission to a top school, later income “varied little, no matter which type of college they attended.” 

The student was responsible for the success — not the school.

I think that’s a great reminder in this context.

Option #4: Your Student Can Take a Gap Year

I’ve never actually been a huge fan of taking a gap year between high school and college. I always considered a gap year to be a great way to lose focus and never go to college. Several of my work-study seniors would take a gap year between college and graduate school and that’s a different story. I loved it when they did that because they already had their degrees. 

This year, my opinion changed. If there was any other time to take a gap year, this is it.

By the way, what’s the techy definition of a gap year? In short, it’s a semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school, usually prior to postsecondary education, to deepen professional and personal awareness.

Aaaand, what’s the No. 1 thing you usually associate a gap year with? Yep, travel. Gap years usually mean backpacking Europe, mission trips to South America and more. That probably won’t happen this year. So, here’s what your child’s gap year could look like this year: 

Learn a new language. (Admittedly, you could argue that you can do that in college.) If your child wants to tackle it, he can check out courses on Udemy or Coursera.

Become more familiar with a subject your child has always wanted to know more about. Now’s the time to become self-directed.

Cultivate soft skills! Oh, my goodness, soft skills are so important. Cross-cultural communication, problem-solving, adaptability! Why not build and nurture soft skills during a gap year? Emotional intelligence looks splendid on a resume — why not work on it? 

Launch those entrepreneurial endeavors. Why not encourage starting a business? If you’ve noticed that your child is entrepreneurial by nature (remember how he sold or traded his snacks at summer camp and came home with a really great baseball glove?) you might encourage those entrepreneurial skills. There’s no question that COVID-19 has been terrible, but it’s also provided more opportunities than ever for entrepreneurs. Now’s the time to figure out what people are missing and need.

Chill out from academics for a while. This can be a good thing if your child’s not going to do well with online learning. Remember, it can be more difficult if you child can’t tap into a writing center, tutor (or flesh-and-blood instructors!) and other resources instrumental to student success. 

A gap year can give your child the opportunity to learn about opportunities. Why not learn at an early age that life is so goooood?  

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Making the Decision

So, knowing all this, what should your child do? How can you help your student decide? 

It’s really going to be important to have lots of discussions. You may have one idea about how this fall will go in your head and your child might have a completely different idea. “Mom, I signed up to go to this college — why don’t you want me to go? I’ll wear my mask!” 

On the other hand, your child might say, “I don’t want to go to school there. It’s not going to look the same at all as our visit.” In that case, your child will be totally right — but you still might want him to go to college because you’re not sure if he’ll have the same motivation a year from now.

What to Do if You Clash Over a Final Approach

Contact the college if you, your child and your family are having a hard time making a final decision about what to do. The college wants to know what your concerns are and wants to do whatever it can to help you. 

It’s okay to get help beyond that. Talk to your spouse or partner, parents, friends, a mental health counselor. Remember one of the truths I listed at the top? Here it is again: You may not know what to do — and that’s okay.

Start a lengthy conversation with your child and listen. Listen, listen, listen. Remember, whatever decision you make doesn’t have to be permanent. Your child can still go to the college he originally planned to attend, even if it’s just a little later on.

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