Choosing a college is typically a rite of passage whereby students, their guidance counselors and the families take time to analyze finances, take in-person tours of campuses and check out their financial aid packages.
It’s a slow and methodical process that usually wraps up on May 1 when students have to make their college decisions and put in their first monetary deposits for the coming fall semester.
That process has been completely upended this year as seniors at Everett High have been remote all year, not having direct contact with their guidance counselors except online since March 2020. Meanwhile, with most schools not offering any in-person tours, students find themselves taking a little bit of a risk in choosing a school that they most likely have never actually been to.
For Mimi Le, she is choosing between College of Holy Cross and Boston University – but she’s never officially visited the campus.
“It’s 100 percent a risk,” she said. “It’s kind of nerve-racking because you have to kind of take a leap of faith and whether it’s the right choice for you. For me there was a lot of reaching out and flooding people with many questions.”
With no ability to visit either college except with a virtual tour, Le used the unique strategy of finding current students on social media and trying to see if they would answer questions honestly about their experience at the school. Not a lot answered, so for her the college choice process including a lot of research, reaching out and hoping for a cooperative person on the other end of the social media handle.
“I had to go on virtual school visits and I also reached out to people I didn’t know that attended schools I wanted to know about,” she said. “I would go on social media and find people who attended those schools and I would message them and ask them some questions to see if they thought it might be a good fit for me. It was frustrating, and a lot of the students from big schools didn’t answer, but some did.”
So is the life of COVID-19 when people have to find work-arounds for just about everything that cannot happen in person, and for students in Everett looking at colleges – it all seemed to boil down to a risk that previous classes didn’t have to take.
EHS Senior Nam Tran is headed to Cornell in New York, and he said it’s a campus he really doesn’t know much about – and a student body he has never met and a teaching faculty he knows nothing about. Questions he had about the school have been answered online pretty well, he said, but most of the questions that would have been answered in person just have to be left up to good fortune.
“I am one of those seniors that wants to spread my wings and get out of Massachusetts,” he said. “I have to take this risk about whether it will be a good fit for me. I think I will like the in-person experience, but I didn’t get to visit, so it is a bit of a risk.”
Another consideration for senior Rose Jean Pierre was whether to stay close to home, which she eventually did in deciding to attend Northeastern University. Had COVID-19 not happened, though, she said it’s possible she could have made a different decision.
“I chose Northeastern and I didn’t want to go far and I wanted to stay closer to home,” she said. “I wanted to be close to family and I could get back home easily because you don’t know what might happen.”
Guidance Director Johnna Hooks said that a risk is involved this year like never before, but she said many students are choosing to go to college and she believes in their resiliency.
“It is a risk they are taking, but I think the colleges did a good job showing off their campuses virtually and giving 360 degree views,” she said.
One of the major concerns she has is the large numbers of students that are choosing to delay college at EHS because they need to work to support their families. Right now, many urban high schools are starting to see that job loss by families is pushing more responsibilities on young people to work. That has now begun to infiltrate extra-curricular activities, sports, school attendance and now college plans.
“It seems there is still that group of students that plan on continuing to college and there is another group of students that, because of COVID-19, there is a need for them to work more,” she said. “I don’t know, but that may be keeping some students from going to college because they need to support their families. That’s something that really affects our students. Many right now are struggling to just balance work and school. That’s been tough for them.”
For so many others in the Class of 2021, the decision is simply a financial one – she said – where kids choose their college only by the financial package offered.
“Right now, kids are still surveying options and financial aid and award letters,” she said. “I really feel like this year will be the year they decide on where to go by the amount of money they get from an institution. If they can, they will go to college for less because money is a real concern for our students now.”
Some students, she said, are even looking at a skip year in order to work – to ride out COVID-19 fully – and to then begin looking at college next year.
When it came to finances, all three EHS seniors interviewed said they got a lot of help from the school – despite having to be on Zoom for the financial aid seminars – but they also relied on their friends to answer questions and support them.
“I’m a first generation college students so the FAFSA (financial aid application) and the college applications, I didn’t know anything about that,” said Pierre. “I did feel the school did try hard to guide us in the college process, which I really needed.”
Tran said he was in the same boat, and he not only turned to the school, but also his friends.
“I didn’t know what FAFSA was and had to learn it as I was going,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of resources – maybe a few websites. It was a very difficult experience. How did I know the college would be good for me? Again, there were no in-person tours so you don’t know…Having a group of friends to work on applications with is valuable. Having a group of peers and friends was really what motivated me to continue with the application process to tell the truth. Most of my peer evaluators in the end were my friends.”
And as the process winds down and students choose their college for next year, all said they are still a bit concerned about COVID-19. They are mostly concerned about whether it might shut down their schools and push them remote – something they all said they’ve had enough of with all-remote high school over the past 18 months.
Pierre said her class has missed out basically on all of their high school years, and it is very important to them not to miss out on college too.
“It would be a real bummer for me because I want to stay on campus because I hear college is the best time of your life,” she said. “I already missed out on half my high school experience and I don’t want to miss out on that experience in college too. I don’t want to go back to 24/7 in front of a laptop. That’s what I’m doing now. I want to move forward now and I want to live my life.”