Opinion | How colleges can help high school seniors during coronavirus crisis

Patrick O'Connor

Patrick O’Connor is associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, and author of College is Yours 2.0.​

March 30: Whitmer to end Michigan school year; seniors graduate, others move up

Michigan’s colleges and universities are doing the right thing for their students by closing campuses and moving all courses to an online format.  These are by no means perfect solutions, but they’re doing the best they can to put students first in these challenging times.

With that record of success behind them, it’s now time for colleges to do the right thing for future students—the high school seniors who will soon be choosing which college to attend this fall.  Spring is the time for seniors and their families to sort out their choices for life after high school, but just like the students already in college, the current situation is throwing some hurdles in the way of the Class of 2020.  Here’s what colleges can do to help students navigate those obstacles, and make a strong choice for what comes next in their lives:

Delay the date a required enrollment deposit has to be paid.  Most colleges ask students to make an enrollment deposit by May 1, a sign that the student intends to attend that college in the fall.  May 1 usually works pretty well, but that’s assuming students have had the opportunity to visit campuses over Spring Break and do some serious comparison shopping.  Obviously, that’s out for now.

Oregon State University was the first college in the country to see this problem, and they found a pretty easy solution- they’ve moved their deposit deadline to June 1.  OSU’s chief enrolment officer points out that there’s nothing magical about the May 1 date, so if an extra month gives students a chance to see campuses, why not?  A number of other colleges that require a deposit have done the same thing, but none of them are in Michigan.  Let’s hope that changes soon. 

Consider developing new payment plans to meet the financial changes brought on by the virus.  OSU’s officer also points out that, while we were all out hoarding kitchen wipes, the stock market has been on a roller coaster ride that has been more down than up.  Since many families invest college funds in the market, that means a good number of families might discover what they thought they could afford last fall—when their senior applied to college—is either completely out of reach, or is going to require some fancy financing if it’s going to work.  

Since there are fewer high school seniors in Michigan to choose from this year, colleges need to think about doing what they can to keep interested students from changing their minds for less expensive options.  Colleges that have payment plans need to remind parents they exist; colleges that don’t need to come up with them, and fast.

Revisit options available for students who need to put college on hold.  Despite everyone’s best efforts, circumstances are going to arise where students who thought they were headed to college this fall will have to put those plans on hold.  Illnesses can affect families and family businesses, where a spare pair of hands can make all the difference in moving forward with purpose.

This happens often enough under normal times that colleges allow students to delay the start of their college attendance, provided they meet certain criteria.  Known as deferring attendance, many colleges require students to re-apply for admission in order to delay their start, while others require some kind of deposit.

It’s time to review those requirements.  Students may be so busy with their studies that they’ll need the summer to make their final college choice, or they may need a semester or two to save up what they need to pay for their first year, giving the stock market time to recover as well.  

Flexibility has been the key in the thoughtful responses colleges have made to the current crisis.  These steps will go a long way to extend that flexibility to next year’s freshman class, giving them a sense of belonging that will make the college transition a smooth one.

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Amy Smitter
Wed, 03/18/2020 - 8:30am

Great summary. Patrick knows what it means to these students to make this transition work.

Patrick OConnor
Wed, 03/18/2020 - 11:18am

Update: Hats off to Kettering University, Wayne State, and Western Michigan for moving their deposit date to June 1.

Dawn Medley
Wed, 03/25/2020 - 4:30pm

We're trying to do everything we can to support students and their families through this. Thanks for the shout out.