March is application results month. It is normally a time for celebration and excitement around future studies abroad. This year, in 2020, with the global COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, application results are causing anxiety about the future among some families. Will I be able to go abroad to study? Should I go abroad to study? How do I assess the risks of sending my child so far away?
Previously families felt proud to send their children abroad to study after grade 12. But the lockdown of many countries caused by COVID-19 has made families rethink the risk-reward equation of higher education opportunities. Stories of stranded students en route to their home countries cause worry, as families imagine yet-unknown global calamities of the future.
The ease of travel, simple connectivity due to WhatsApp calling and FaceTime were comfort factors as parents planned to send their children far away for an international, holistic learning experience. Hopping onto an overnight flight at a moment’s notice to support a child in the UK or expecting US colleges to take care of students during a crisis has come into question with COVID-19. Expecting students to vacate dorms and find accommodation when colleges shut down, worrying about quarantine or being unable to reenter one’s home country are realities many students have faced. The situation in each country and institution are different, but there is no doubt that most international students are being affected by measures being taken to stem the virus globally. There are a few notable exceptions of colleges hosting international students who cannot return home. Still, fear of being caught up in this uncertainty is causing 54% of aspiring students to report that they are no longer planning to study abroad.
Also, with increased social distancing and extended lockdowns, we do not know when universities will resume activity on campus, or whether new students will be able to matriculate in the fall. Planning for an uncertain future, colleges themselves are taking diverse approaches to the situation. For example, at least one university has asked some admitted international students to pay their enrolment deposit earlier than usual to confirm their spot. Most colleges plan to run online classes if students cannot get a visa in time or if campuses continue to remain closed. But online classes are uncharted territory for most students and colleges, and parents worry that the high cost is not justified without the complete on-campus experience. While many colleges have said that their tuition fees will not be reduced, the cost of housing and travel will obviously decrease the total cost of attendance. On the other hand, a growing list of colleges and universities are pledging to extend their enrolment deadlines from the usual May 1 decision date to June 1. This will give families more time to assess their financial situation and allow students time for research before making a final decision on colleges to where they are admitted.
When it comes to making decisions, colleges are eager to connect with students to help them navigate the process despite being unable to visit. Admitted student open days and campus tours are mostly cancelled. Still, admissions officers (now all working from home) are eager to speak to admitted students and give them as much information as possible to help them decide where they want to spend the next four years, once the COVID-19 situation has been managed. A recent New York Times article outlines several ways that students can tap various resources to learn more about colleges. As students rethink their plans and weigh their options, colleges are planning for business-as-usual in Fall 2020 and they are keen to yield admitted students through new technologies and techniques. Indeed the Amherst College admissions dean says “We will enrol, as planned, a typical class of 473 incoming first-year students.”
Another option for students who are still unsure about the fall is to defer their admission by a year, until September 2021. In fact, even before the COVID-19 situation, taking a gap year was common and even encouraged by many colleges. Here are some of the reasons why taking a gap year can be so beneficial. With so many unanswered questions about the future, taking a gap year might be the best solution. If you are admitted to your top choice college but prefer an on-campus (rather than online) experience or you want to spend one more year closer to your family, planning a gap year to gain valuable skills can be a great benefit. Considering the situation, it is also likely to be a solution your family will support.
For students who are still certain of accepting a place at a college abroad for Fall 2020, admissions offices suggest various strategies to make a final choice. These range from creating a checklist of categories to reading your email regularly (something most teens don’t do) to connecting with other admitted students on social media. Whichever of these works best for you, keep an open mind and a positive outlook. Colleges, students, parents and counsellors are all in this together and supporting students to find their best fit, despite uncertainty, is a common goal.