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Female college student carrying books wearing a face mask during pandemic.

The College Conundrum

Jul 30, 2020 | 5 min. read

Parents with college-age children will be faced with some difficult decisions this fall.

As COVID-19 works itself into seemingly every nook and cranny of our lives, we find ourselves facing decisions we never could have imagined having to make only six months ago. For parents with college-age children, a series of those decisions is rapidly approaching. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 65 percent of America’s colleges and universities have announced plans to open their campuses and offer in-person learning. The daunting challenge they are facing, of course, is how to do so while keeping students, faculty and campus workers safe.

Not surprisingly, many of the road maps for reopening rely on similar and, by now, familiar protocols for containing the virus. Enhanced cleaning and sanitation of classrooms and dormitories. Social distancing in classrooms, with plexiglass dividers. Face masks on campus. And aggressive contact tracing to identify and isolate infected individuals, with makeshift infirmaries to care for them.

But will it be enough? As a recent Washington Post story suggested, “Campuses are almost ideal venues for viral transmission, with students packed into dormitories, apartment suites, cafeterias and lecture halls. They live, eat, study and party together. Keeping a social distance will be challenging for even the most conscientious students, faculty and staff.”

The paradox of college life and pandemic restrictions

Clearly, the first, very fundamental question that parents must ask themselves is: “Am I confident that my son or daughter will be safe if I send them back to college in the middle of this pandemic?” There’s no doubt that colleges and universities will do everything they can, but the hard truth is there are many factors outside of their control, particularly when it comes to living and socializing outside of the protective bubble they will attempt to create on campus. Students, in other words, are not just returning to campus, but to a college ecosystem that includes off-campus apartments and houses, the parties that will inevitably be held there and the restaurants and bars surrounding the campus.

Given that young people are generally more willing to take risks and that most are confident of their ability to recover from COVID-19, it seems unlikely that they will be willing to forego all social activity. In fact, there is already ample evidence in college communities across the country that many won’t. And even if some are willing to do so, it may not make a difference if they share living quarters with other students who are not. Such are the interdependencies of a pandemic.

The reality is that opening college campuses is a calculated gamble and so is sending your child back to school. There is simply no way that any school can or will guarantee that your child will not be exposed to or infected by the virus in a densely packed college ecosystem full of willing risk-takers. Thankfully, though, the odds are decidedly in the favor of most healthy 18 to 22-year-olds. Some who are infected will not even experience symptoms, and for most that do, they are likely to be mild to moderate. Nevertheless, you should make sure that there is a plan in place if your child does become infected.

Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

Infected students will need to isolate for a prescribed period of time. Where will that take place? Some schools have already arranged to turn dorms or other buildings into makeshift infirmaries, but if your student’s school has not made such arrangements, the equation becomes more complicated. Do you live close enough that your child could return home to quarantine? Do you or your spouse have underlying health issues that would make you uncomfortable having your infected child quarantine at home? If so, are you willing to consider alternative arrangements, like sequestering your child in a hotel?

It must also be acknowledged that underlying health conditions are not solely the province of older people. If your son or daughter has medical issues, like asthma or diabetes, they may be more vulnerable to the virus and you may want to more carefully consider options like having them take online classes only, or even taking a gap year. College admission departments are fully expecting a higher number of students than normal either not to enroll or not to return to campus this fall.

The cost of the college experience during COVID

Even for parents who have healthy children and are less concerned about the risks posed by COVID-19, there is one obvious question begging to be answered: Does it make sense to pay full tuition for a semester or even a full year of college that is likely to be absent of many of the activities we typically associate with a full college experience? Like sporting events, parties and on-campus events such as concerts, lectures and rallies. It’s also possible that many of the facilities that your tuition goes to pay for – like the library and the fitness center – may not be available to students. Add to this an unusual “hands-off” learning environment compromised by physical barriers and masks and it’s not surprising that some parents are asking themselves this question.

One option is having your child continue to earn semester hours at a less expensive junior or community college. This is more feasible for those in the first two years of their studies since most “core class” credits are transferrable. It’s less feasible for juniors and seniors since courses directly related to their major may not be transferrable. In either case, you should make sure that the classes your child would take can be transferred if you are considering this route.

Another option is having your student take online classes until the campus comes back to life, but this has been made considerably less attractive by the fact that most colleges have made it clear there will be no discount for students who opt for this path. The simple truth is that most schools are highly dependent on the revenue that is generated from tuition and that fact is central to many of the decisions they are making.

From disruption can come opportunity

There is, of course, no single right answer for all parents and their students. But the more information you have, the more confident you will feel in whatever decision you ultimately make. So, if you haven’t already, take the time to familiarize yourself with the specific reopening plans for your child’s college or university (most have posted this information on their website). And as you review those plans, jot down any questions that come to mind and email them directly to the proper contact at the school. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the school has thought of everything. We’re in new territory here, and as should be obvious by the patchwork national response to the coronavirus outbreak, those in charge are sometimes making up the rules as they go.

Finally, talk to your child. Be honest about any concerns you have and ask them how they feel about the prospect of returning to campus. Be prepared to share and discuss a menu of options for continuing or even pausing their educational journey. It’s not necessary or maybe even prudent to be a slave to conventional thinking at a time like this, so encourage your child to think of the next 6-12 months as an opportunity instead of a jail sentence and work together as a family to come up with a plan that fits everybody’s needs. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we are not always in total control of our lives and that sometimes we must be willing to make sacrifices and adjustments in order to ultimately achieve our goals. That might be a lesson that sticks with your child for far longer than most of their college classes.        

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