College Planning in the Pandemic Era

Weighty issues need to be considered before making expensive college commitments that could easily be disrupted in the coming months.

Families of college-bound students had made $500 billion in tuition commitments for this coming September. Many of those plans have been abandoned, torn up, forgotten about, or, at best, – put on hold. They will remain on hold until some semblance of certainty settles into the economy. Issue number one is that if a parent loses a job, how will the family pay for the college costs that they didn’t even fully understand before the COVID-19 crisis hit?

There is significant tension and stress relating to college plans for this September. Parents want their kids in college this fall, yet the overwhelming worry is the financial consideration of their ability to pay for a large future obligation. There is the uncertainty of whether or not colleges will even be open in September and beyond.

Colleges have not done the public any favors in terms of providing clarity or reliable assurances regarding their plans for the fall semester. Some are insisting they will be fully open, come hell or high water. Others are saying they hope to offer in-class instruction and that curriculum delivered via Zoom will be on standby. Stanford and some others have said that they may not reopen until January, 2021. The largest university system in the country, California state universities, announced on May 12 that it will offer only online instruction for the fall semester. The most forthright statement a college could make would be, “Our status will remain uncertain until the health authorities determine when we can resume normal operations.”

If you are confused, it’s through no fault of your own. Most likely, you’re trying to get through this current spring semester hopefully financially intact, and then start thinking seriously about what the coming college year might look like.

Colleges have little control over whether or not they will actually be able to provide in-classroom instruction this September. They operate by the same set of rules and laws as other businesses, and the health authorities will decide which businesses will be open in September, and to what extent. Another consideration should be factored in to the decision making process and that is the possibility of another lock down, should a second wave of the virus break out. The onset of the flu season in autumn could be confused with the COVID-19 virus. And finally – is the college able to provide quality on-line instruction should the need arise?

For the past two months, we’ve been running a range of scenario plans with the intent of mitigating risk for families who are trying to determine what the most appropriate college plan should be for this September. The main factors that we have incorporated into our scenario planning model are listed below. (Our model assumes that the primary interests of parents are: (1) have their child attend college in some capacity this September; (2) for reasons of financial insecurity, reduce college costs to the greatest extent possible.

Here are some of the considerations that factor into our recommendations:

  • Colleges may not be able to offer in-classroom instruction. Online curriculum is the alternative. Considerations regarding online learning are:
    • Is the college you’re considering competent in delivering curriculum online?
    • Do you want to pay for an expensive college while your child takes courses online?
    • If colleges go back into lock down this may necessitate students vacate campuses and dorms and then your child will be living at home again.
  • Identify colleges that offer in-classroom instruction and have online curriculum if required. Key criteria include:
    • In-classroom instruction
    • Credible online curriculum delivery
    • Location that is as close to home as possible (If in-classroom instruction is feasible, student will need to commute to school)
    • Lowest tuition possible

The net result of the scenario planning is to find a low-cost college, close to home that is competent at in-classroom and online learning. This college selection strategy covers all of the key bases. It’s practical, very risk averse and has an emphasis on cost management. Furthermore, the student can complete a year (or more if necessary) at a low-cost local college, and then transfer to a more elite college in their later years to complete their degree. Think of this as an inexpensive option strategy. Knock out a year or two at a lower cost college and then go shopping for a name brand school when it’s time to think about a diploma.

Within this current situation is an opportunity to refocus on getting what matters out of college—an education that is valued by the labor market. When we emerge from this recession, employers won’t be interested in kids with history degrees and perfect grammar. They’ll be hiring supply-chain experts, grads with healthcare credentials, data scientists and engineers. The kids may not understand the seriousness of the economic issues surrounding this crisis, unless one or both parents have lost a job. Hone in on the skills that matter to employers while managing college costs and developing a safe plan to get through the next year or two of college.

Because colleges have brought little clarity to the situation, this is an excellent opportunity for families develop a rational college planning strategy.


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