Decision Day for high school seniors comes with added stress

The University of Wisconsin-Madison's Financial Aid office. Graduating high school students around Wisconsin are deciding if they should take on student debt. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Rowan Cody has a decision to make. It’s a decision high school seniors have made before her and others are making alongside her — where to attend college. 

But this year, Cody and the rest of the class of 2020 are making this decision while the economy is in shambles, the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread and in-person classes may not even happen on college campuses in the fall. 

Traditionally, “decision day,” the deadline to decide where to go to college, is May 1. While many schools across the country have extended the deadline until June, Cody is choosing between Lewis and Clark College in Oregon or Bates College in Maine — which have both extended their decision deadlines. 

Despite the pandemic, her criteria are similar to many other graduating seniors. Does she want to row crew in college like she did in high school? Will the school help her figure out her path? Which school best helps her reach her goal of working for environmental justice? 

She says it’s been harder for her to use her classmates as sounding boards for her decision. 

I don’t think the thought process has been influenced [by coronavirus],” she says. “It’s harder to reach out to friends and talk to them about what they’re deciding.” 

On top of the normal questions that go into this decision, she has one more — will she be on campus in the fall? 

If the answer to that question is no, she plans to defer her enrollment at least a semester and wait to start college until she can be on campus, saying she’s not interested in starting her college career online. 

Her mother, Renee Lauber, says they made a family decision that it wasn’t worth the cost and the loss of the college experience to start online. 

Going to college is this complete experience of leaving home and meeting new people,” Lauber says. “That’s part of the complete college experience she wouldn’t be getting with online classes.” 

The financial considerations of this decision, while important, aren’t at the forefront. Lauber says the family has been saving and they don’t think they’ll have to take out loans. 

But other students have that consideration added on top of the decision. On top of the already life changing decision of where to go to school, many students are having to ask themselves if it’s worth taking on thousands of dollars of student loan debt just to stay home and take classes online. 

Routes such as gap years, deferred enrollments and community colleges might become more popular options as people wait out the crisis, according to Michele Streeter, a policy analyst at The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

“A school that keeps telling you, ‘We don’t know what we’re going to do,’ but asks students to take on an exorbitant amount of debt to be in their bedrooms on Zoom …” Streeter says. “If you’re a student and your institution emails you to say your tuition is still the same and all the deadlines for payment are the same, but we can’t tell you for several months what your experience is going to be. It wouldn’t be foolish to look at the situation and decide not to go.”

There also might be a more long-term change in how people think about the costs of attending college, according to Streeter.

“I do think there’s going to be a big shift in behavior as far as people’s willingness to take on debt,” Stretter says.

Kathy Blumenfeld, Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, says she’s had many conversations with family and friends who were planning to head off to college in the fall and realizes this is an unbelievable amount of added pressure.

“I feel so sorry for high school seniors and college seniors,” Blumenfeld says. “What a time to be entering the next phase of your life. It’s hard enough with the pandemic, but then to add that level of stress is really challenging.”

Blumenfeld says she has a niece who was supposed to be heading out of state for college. Now, it makes less sense to pay out-of-state tuition for general education classes taken online from her brother’s home. So the consideration, Blumenfeld says, is balancing the costs with what a student expects to be earning after school, as well as the experiential parts of college such as dorm life and moving away from home.

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“I’d say, one: go in with eyes wide open knowing what the total costs are going to be, two: comparing that to your earning potential and three: having some scenarios for what might be and what’s the most cost effective,” Blumenfeld says. “But part of college is experience as well, it can’t always be based on dollars.”

For Lauber and Cody, the gap year is the best option if Cody can’t attend classes in person. But, she says she’s different from many other students. She attended Conserve School, a semester-long environmental boarding school during her junior year, so she’s used to being away from home. She’s also considering two small liberal arts schools on two completely different sides of the country. 

Wisconsin Treasurer Sarah Godlewski
Wisconsin Treasurer Sarah Godlewski

Every student making a college decision has specific, personal factors to consider. That’s why, according to Wisconsin State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, choosing the best option is up to each family. 

Godlewski says when she went away to college, her school was the only one in the country that offered her chosen program — peace and conflict resolution, which she studied at George Mason University. While that decision got her some strange looks at home, she says, it ultimately worked out. 

“I think that honestly, this is an individual decision,” Godlewski says. “Graduating seniors need to make a decision that they really believe in and they think will best fit them. Not just by yourself, but educate yourself. The reality is after college I ended up working at the Pentagon, so it was worth that risk. It’s up to every graduate.”

After this year’s graduates eventually make their decisions, they’ll end up at schools around the country all having gone through the same strange experience ending their high school careers and transitioning to the next step. Cody, who says she’s disappointed about missing graduation and prom, added that she’s looking forward to bonding with other members of the high school Class of 2020 in college.  

“Now all of these people who are going to be in the college classes of 2024 will have had the same experiences,” Cody says.