Higher Education Options for Fall 2020: Community College, Online Learning, or On-Campus Learning

With so much uncertainty around whether the economy will be reopened to the extent that students will be able to return to campus in the fall, many are wondering if they should take a semester or year off, move to a fully online option, go to a community college, or chance returning to campus (should it be open).

In my opinion: it depends.

Your options, as I see them, are three-fold and as follows:

(1) Take a semester (or year) off. This option is available to current students (as a Leave of Absence) and most newly admited, perspective students (as a Deferment).

If you are a perspective student and you just need more time to think about your options for whatever reason, ask your Admissions Officer/Counselor about the possibility of deferring for a semester or a year – generally, deferments can not be granted for more than one year from the semester of the request.

A Deferment will allow you to keep your admittance into the program without being enrolled in classes and without giving up your place in the program. If you decide not to attend the university, but contact admissions a semester later asking if you can now enroll without requesting a deferment, they will likely request that you reapply to the program. Skip the potential for a reapplication process and defer. There are generally no obligations to doing so, but you will want to check with your individual college.

If you are a current student and you need a semester or longer off, talk with your Academic Advisor about the possibility of taking a Leave of Absence.

A Leave of Absence will allow you to take off a semester or more (like deferments, they generally go up to one year) and return without having to reapply. Even as a currently enrolled student, you are not immune to being required to reapply to the program if you go MIA for a semester. (Note that the summer term is generally not counted against you, if you do not enroll, so you will likely not have to request a Leave of Absence in order to remain in the program should you sit summer out.)

(2) Take classes at your local community college. If you are a perspective student or enrolled in your first two years of a four-year university, consider taking some of your core classes at your local community college and later transferring them in. This is an especially good option if your university has decided to move fully online for the summer and fall semesters, as the tuition rates are usually considerably cheaper and you will be able to transfer these classes at a later date.

If you are interested in transferring community college classes to your current (or future) four-year university, it is imperative you speak with your advisor about the logistics of doing so. Most accredited colleges and universities have a maximum number of classes that you can transfer toward your degree and the number varies by institution. Do your homework and talk with your advisor and admissions counselor about how many classes you can transfer in. Once you are enrolled in classes, check with your institution about how those specific classes you are registered for will transfer in. Most universities have a page on the Registrar’s website or within your student portal that will allow you to see how classes will transfer. If not, or if you are not sure where to find this information, talk with your academic advisor/admissions counselor.

If you are a current student, you will want to apply to the community college as a transient student, meaning you are planning on taking classes there to later transfer to your current institution. Talk with the community college admissions counselor about how to apply as a transient student.

(3) Chance going or returning to campus. No matter what you are hearing from your university administration, faculty, family and/or friends, even if your university decides to reopen, chances are there will be some kind of “new normal” established. In other words, do not expect that things will resume as per usual, no matter what your university administration may be telling you.

Let me here make a point very clear: universities are worried about losing students if they move to a fully-online format. No matter whether the quality of education is comparable (or even in some instances better) than an in-person format, many parents and students take issue with paying full-tuition prices for online learning, because they see it as less of a quality education than in-person. University administrators know this. They also know that online tuition is very generally much cheaper at the community college and that many students will opt to take community college classes to later transfer (as described above in option 2).

The college I work for is one of the few that has been extremely forthcoming about the fall semester not returning to “normal.” They have numerous work-groups that have been considering a variety of options from full-online, to hybrid, to in-person finishing after Thanksgiving. And I have seen the responses from students and parents alike, most of which express extreme disappointment at the lack of normalcy for the on-campus students returning or starting this fall. There will be loss of student tuition dollars, regardless.

Knowing that on-campus students are especially vulnerable to spreading illness, if you attend a university that promises on-campus instruction and a return to normalcy by August: be suspicious. It is much more likely that many of these universities are going to bait and switch you, whether or not it’s intentional. They will tell you that they plan to be on-campus, but are preparing contingencies behind the scenes for a full-online or hybrid option, and will at the last possible minute, once you are already enrolled in classes and excited to attend, move to the contingency plan.

We are facing a potential collapse of higher education due to the ramifications of COVID-19. Universities are afraid of losing students. Period. Even if universities want to reopen in fall, it is very likely that the Governors, especially of those states that have already suspended all K-12 in-person class sessions for the rest of the year, are going to make the decision to continue remote learning in higher education as well. The Governor of your state, not the President of the university, has the final say on the matter. Keep that in mind.

That said, assuming your university is promising a return to campus and you are packed and ready to go: you are a brave individual! Know that more likely than not, students will not be coming back to campus after Thanksgiving break. You will likely have hybrid type sessions, six feet distance, masks – the whole shebang. Football stadiums will likely not be packed. Many of your favorite older faculty may simply refuse to teach in-person sessions, so though you are on campus, you may still be taking classes online. And if you are living on campus, know that all diseases (whether the flu or COVID-19) spread more readily in communal living. Prepare for sickness. You may think you are young, healthy, and immune, but until there is a vaccine, no one is. If you want to risk it, that is up to you. But know many of your fellow students, faculty, and staff do not and are going to be working remotely if and when at all possible.

There are options available to you. My personal suggestion is to continue your education, even if it is in a full-online format. I can tell you that online learning has come a long way and the quality of the online format, just like in-person, depends more on your instructors and what effort you put into the class. The format does not make or break your learning experience, especially in a day and age where we are all already plugged-in.

My advice is to educate yourself about the latest news in Higher Education (e.g., Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education are two of my favorites) and make the decision that is best for you. Good luck!

Your Academic Advisor

Preparing for College in the 2020-2021 Academic Year

So you want to go to college starting fall 2020? That’s great news – congratulations! You have picked a perfect time to make this very important decision, which is the first step. That said, know that, academically speaking, you’re a little late to the game. You may find that most scholarships have been dispersed. If you are applying to graduate programs, most Graduate Assistantships (GAs), Teaching Assistantships (TAs) and Research Assistantships (RAs) have been determined. There are also a number of programs that are no longer accepting applications, as the deadlines have passed. If you decided on attending an in-person or hybrid (i.e., partly in-person, partly online) program, you may find that there are more online components than you expect this fall, due to COVID-19 – we’re still not sure.

But fret not! I am here to help break down next steps for you:

(1) Apply to the college/university/program

If you haven’t completed this first step, it is essential that you do so ASAP. Most colleges/universities have set deadlines. Depending on the program and the college/university, you may find them to be flexible. This is especially true now, as most administrators are anticipating lower enrollment numbers for this academic year. There are also usually a number of necessary components to the application, such as the required informational forms, personal statement, writing sample(s), resume, and letters of recommendation. These all take time to complete, so it is important to use this time in self-isolation to focus on writing and completing the application.

Helpful Tip #1: If the application deadline has already passed, be sure to contact the college/university/department you are wanting to apply to in order to see if they are still accepting applications. This year especially, I suspect that application deadlines are going to be flexible.

Helpful Tip #2: Be sure to line up your recommenders in advance! During these uncertain times especially, be sure to give your recommenders plenty of time to submit their letters of recommendation. Also, make sure that you ask appropriate people to be your recommenders – this includes faculty, supervisors, and other professional references. Do NOT ask family, friends, counselors, or pastoral references (unless you are applying for a degree that is in relation to seminary/theology and you have volunteer experience, or something of that nature, at your church).

(2) Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

It is not required that you accept any loan money that is offered, but I think it is extremely important to at least have your FAFSA on file for the academic years that you plan on being enrolled, regardless as to whether you are an undergraduate or graduate student. Remember, an academic year is from fall to summer, so the 2019-2020 academic year started in fall 2019 and will end after the summer 2020 term. Yes, it is a tedious process, but well worth it, as you will not be considered for grant money (if you are an undergraduate student – graduate students are not eligible), cannot apply for Federal Work Study positions, some scholarships, etc. without it.

Helpful Tip #3: If you are also under 24 years of age, you may also need to have your parents’ financial information to submit the FAFSA. (Some exceptions to this include being married, orphaned, a vet, having children, or if you are emancipated from your parents.)

Helpful Tip #4: Make sure to have all of your (and your parents’) financial and personal information ready – this includes items such as Social Security numbers, birthdays, W-2 information, and bank account information.

(3) Check for available scholarships

Unless you (or your parents) are independently wealthy or you have a full-ride from athletics, academics, etc., you are likely in need of some college funds. Keep in mind, most scholarship applications open and close well in advance of the application deadline. Scholarship applications are usually also separate from the application. That said, never be too proud to inquire whether you can still submit your application. Know that scholarships are often dependent on qualifying factors, such as your grade point average (GPA); Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is determined by the FAFSA; your gender, nationality, race, sexuality, etc.; talents, including musical, athletic, theatrical etc.; area of interest – you get the idea.

Helpful Tip #5: Consider ALL sources. This includes your place of employment, your parents’ place of employment, and other sources within your college. For example, don’t just look at the program’s scholarship page, but the college/university as well. If you are applying for a graduate program, check to see if it is housed in a Graduate School at the college/university. If so, check the Graduate School’s funding page.

Helpful Tip #6: Contact the college/university’s Financial Aid Office for assistance. They can also help inform you as to any available funding.

Helpful Tip #7: Check external scholarship websites. These are usually free databases (some have paid services) with a variety of scholarship opportunities available, that are complied from a variety of sources. Some good starting places would be:

www.fastweb.com

www.edvisors.com

www.cappex.com

globalscholarshipadvisor.com

Helpful Tip #8: Do NOT take out private loans unless absolutely necessary! My biggest piece of advice is stay away from private lenders. The interest rates are higher than federal student loans and they are far less forgiving or open to forbearance, deferments, income-based repayment, etc. Learn from my mistake and avoid private loans at all costs.

(4) Make sure you have a place to live and/or a stable internet connection

Again, with COVID-19, it is hard to predict how Resident Life will be impacted. It might not be, but I always say hope for the best, prepare for the worst. If you have chosen to attend an in-person program, make sure you have your living situation figured out (i.e., whether you plan to live on- or off-campus). If you have decided to live on-campus, check to see whether you need a meal plan and, if so, what plan options best suit you. Also, be considering items you will need to purchase for your dorm – I plan to publish a separate post on this in the future.

If you are in a hybrid or online program, be sure you have a stable internet connection as well as access to (and capability of using) the appropriate programs/software. Most hybrid/online programs utilize programs like Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, etc. as well as video conferencing software such as skype or zoom. Your success in the program will be dependent upon your having the technology to access these interfaces.

Regardless as to whether you are in-person, hybrid, or online, you will be expected to use the Microsoft Office Suite, such as Word and Excel. So, be prepared to utilize technology.

(5) Once you have been admitted (Congratulations!), you will need to register for classes.

Check to see first whether you have been assigned an academic or faculty advisor. If so, they should be reaching out to you to schedule your courses and/or sending communications on how to do so. If not, you will want to check the Registrar’s webpage for instructions. In order to receive a GA, TA, RA, or work-study position, you will need to be registered for classes. Do not be afraid to ask your department/college/university for help!

(6) Lastly, make sure to know who you will be working with

Find out who your advisors/counselors (i.e., academic, financial aid, etc.) are. Also, know who the Chair, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students/Graduate Students, and Dean of your department/college are. It is also good to know who your Dean of Student Success, Registrar, Provost, and President are – it is unlikely you will ever be contacting the Provost or President, but you are about to be part of an institution, with a culture all its own. Don’t be afraid to show some school spirit and pride by knowing some history of your department/college/university, including who all the important players are.

Congratulations and good luck! Be sure to subscribe for more insider information.

Your Academic Advisor