Fall 2020 College Return: Navigating the “New Normal”

Fall 2020 has arrived and it is likely nothing that you expected your college experience to be.

After months of uncertainty, universities are returning to campus, converting to online, or some hybrid blend of the two. If you keep up with Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle of Higher Education, or just the general news, you know that for those colleges attempting an in-person or hybrid format, there is still uncertainty about how to move forward with COVID-19 testing, liability waivers, classroom layouts and instruction, dorm life, cafeteria layouts, etc. And even if your college or university is confident in their approach to the campus reopening plan, students returning are still adjusting to wearing masks and maintaining 6 feet distance from their peers.

I cannot even begin to claim any sort of expertise in regard to what you should expect moving forward, but I can tell you that it is highly likely that classes will again be moved fully-online within the next month, if your particular college or university has not yet done so. Even with testing, following health standards and regulations by wearing masks and maintaining distance, we are (perhaps unsurprisingly) seeing what is being referred to as “clusters” of COVID-19 cases popping up at universities that just recently reopened – particularly in dorms, fraternity/sorority houses, and other student housing on- and off-campus.

The most recent and reported example of this is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which will be moving to remote learning starting tomorrow.

(Note that Notre Dame just suspended in-person class as I am writing this.)

Of course, the general response from all sides has been one of frustration. It is pretty safe to assume at this point that no university reopening plan was going to be well-received by everyone, but in this author’s humble opinion: though it is understandably disappointing, especially for students, a remote classroom learning model is the safest option for everyone (faculty, student, staff, and administrators alike). I also think it’s equally safe to say that no one is surprised that these COVID-19 clusters are occurring. It seems a bit naive to think that young people away from home in close proximity to other young people are not going to attend gatherings and have a good time with a disregard for health and safety regulations. The social aspect of higher education is just as relevant to the in-person college experience as attending class. If students are going to be allowed to return to campus then it is inevitable that those students are going to interact with one another and, in all likelihood, be in contact with at least one student who is infected with COVID-19, thus initiating the spread.

(If anyone is uncertain as to how infectious diseases spread and would like an accurate visual depiction, I suggest watching the movie Contagion.)

But since I am not here to implement scare-tactics to encourage you to consider moving to fully online classes, which is my personal and profession recommendation, I will give you some advice for how to move forward with in-person learning and on-campus living that will minimize your risk of catching and/or spreading the virus:

(1) Wear a mask. For your safety and for the safety of others, when you are outside of your dorm room or the cafeteria, wear your mask. Most universities are mandating this, but have limited ways of enforcing it. That said, just because you may be able to get away with not wearing a mask without negative repercussions, it is the safe, smart, and responsible thing to do for yourself and others.

(2) Maintain 6 Feet Distance. This is a hard one even for me. When I walk to Starbucks with my coworkers, I rarely think twice about being next to them. I understand that when you are with your friends the last concern is whether you or they are infected. But try to maintain distance for your and their safety.

(3) Sanitize/Wash Your Hands. According to healthline.com, we touch our face an average of 16 times per hour. That equates a lot of opportunity for you to spread infection from contaminated surfaces to yourself – so wash your hands for at least 20 seconds and/or use an at least 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

(4) Sanitize your space. Most colleges and universities are disinfecting classrooms daily, but in my opinion, it is important to keep your desk space clean. If you have them, bring antibacterial wipes with you to class and wipe down your desk area. (Note that many colleges are also providing wipes.) In a pinch, use your hand sanitizer.

(5) If you or someone you have been in contact with has been diagnosed with COVID-19: Quarantine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should quarantine at home for 14 days and avoid contact with others.

(6) If you cough or sneeze, try to do so in a tissue and throw it away.

For more information on these tips, please check out the CDC website.

Additional suggestions to the more common ones listed above are:

(7) If you are not feeling well or around anyone not feeling well: Quarantine. Work with your college and/or individual instructors to see if you can utilize remote learning for a week or two while you quarantine as a safety precaution. Trust me, if you tell a faculty member that you are not feeling well and do not want to chance coming to class, he/she will most likely appreciate your concern for him/her as well as your fellow peers, and will accommodate you as much as possible.

(8) If available to you, get tested frequently. A baseline test is a good starting place, but ultimately not very helpful if you are in constant contact with people on- or off-campus. I would personally suggest testing every couple of weeks at least, but some colleges have implemented required testing every two days, which I think is preferable. Even if it is not a requirement of your particular college, I personally recommend testing often.

(9) Avoid traveling. Many colleges are implementing travel restrictions, but I personally suggest you avoid going back home to visit your family and friends with any amount of frequency. Stay on campus or around campus for the duration of your semester. This helps not only protect your family/friends from possible exposure, but also helps prevent you potentially returning to campus and infecting your roommates, friends, professors, etc.

I realize it is not realistic to expect you to not engage with your peers or not occasionally visit home, but please do so safely and responsibly for yourself, for them, and for your faculty and college staff.

Be safe. Be smart. Be responsible. And try to make the most of your college experience, despite this unfortunate circumstance.

Regardless, I wish you a successful, happy, and healthy semester!

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

COVID-19’s Impact on Higher Education

Just google, “COVID-19’s Impact on Higher Education,” and a slew of pages will bombard you with information regarding how this unprecedented situation will negatively affect enrollment numbers for colleges and universities around the world. Of course, from a domestic student perspective, this is probably not much cause for alarm – if anything, you may see it as an opportunity to be more likely considered for your top choice universities and have first pick of the classes you planned to register for with no fear of being waitlisted, due to this national projection toward less competition.

As a university employee, however, I have a myriad of thoughts regarding the situation. On the one hand, colleges (including mine) are buckling down, streamlining budgets, and preparing for the worst. (I have been saddened to see so many universities already discussing furloughing their employees.) To be honest, I would have to do more research regarding the data that is being pulled to make these decisions; but, from experience, and assuming that federal financial aid remains an option, I have a few of my own (more instinctual, less data driven) predictions:

(1) I expect enrollment numbers to increase, not decrease. This is especially true for technical and professional degrees. From experience, I saw the surge of enrollment at the community and technical college I worked for soon after the crash of 2008. A well-paying company that employed a large number of locals in mostly blue-collar positions performed massive layoffs. This, in turn, caused an influx of students to the community and technical college in order for those who were laid off to become trained/certified in other fields. Many also decided to pursue a two- or four-year degree, so enrolled to either complete their associate’s degree or to transfer their first two years of core classes to a bachelor’s program.

(2) I am in no way promoting this as a possible solution to unemployment, but the fact remains: with roughly 1 in 4 Americans losing their job or source of income due to COVID-19, many are going to be turning to federal student aid to supplement lost income.

(Speaking of which: if you are a new or returning student, please be sure to go ahead and fill out the 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. With that in mind, if you plan on taking summer classes, you will need to have your 2019-2020 FAFSA completed and if you will be returning for the 2020-2021 academic year, you will need to fill out that FAFSA as well. I won’t lie: 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.)

(3) Now is the best time to have student debt – assuming there is every really a “good” time. Federal Student Aid repayment options are more affordable than ever (i.e., not required and not incurring interest) with the recent enactment of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and. Economic Security (CARES) Act. (To find out more about how CARES affects students, check out this Forbes article.)

(4) With so many online program options available and nothing else to do while social distancing: why wouldn’t both prospective and current students enroll in classes?

I will end this by saying that I am by no means intending to trivialize the concerns regarding COVID-19’s impact on higher education – many employees, such as those in customer service roles (e.g., custodial workers, cafeteria workers, etc.) will absolutely be negatively impacted if there are no students, faculty, and/or staff on campus. And I cannot even fathom how this is going to impact international student enrollment. However, I do think the majority of colleges and universities are jumping the gun in regard to the presumed negative financial impact of COVID-19.