On March 12, 2020, I was one of those college students who received the email declaring my campus closed and beginning a transition to remote learning. Were we shocked? You bet. As a college senior, a global pandemic striking during the final months of my university days was not what I was hoping for or what I had planned for.
But still, within those two weeks of being sent home in the middle of spring break, rushing (possible) last goodbyes to all my friends, and having to make a separate trip back to campus to empty out my dorm for good, that time frame may have been the most tuned-in to school emails and updates the entire student body population has ever been.
When you enter college as a freshman you soon realize that the experience of the next four years is truly what you make of it. Whether you are on an open city campus like Boston University or on the idyllic movie-set scene of a closed college campus like mine, these faculty, staff, and your fellow peers become your support system. You realize that in times of uncertainty and fear of the future, you inevitably turn to those who are immediately around you.
I want to challenge those who are soon going to be in college. Whether you are a high school junior, high school senior, or maybe you are looking to transfer colleges because of unforeseen circumstances, I challenge you to dig just a little bit deeper into the institutions that top your lists. The way that colleges and universities have responded to this crisis, in particular, will give you the opportunity to understand your future institution’s values, beliefs, and degree of transparency with their students.
Prior to COVID-19, high schoolers’ college decision factors would look a little something like this:
Specialty in program or desired major
Standardized testing results
And while factors such as “location,” “dining options”, and “dorm/housing conditions” may seem arbitrary now, they are still very much an influential part of how our schools handled their situations. While you may not want to (or have to - hopefully) predict whether you’ll be thrown into the middle of a pandemic during your school years, seeing how schools made amends and accommodations during this time will help you set the tone for student-administration relationships for semesters to come.
Without further ado, here are some additional factors you may want to consider when thinking about your future (or current) college or university:
Note: I will be using schools in and around Boston, MA as a reference.
How long did it take for them to decide?
Between declaring campuses closed and the switch to virtual for the remainder of the semester, how long did it take for them to decide?
Thinking back a few months, it frustrated me and a majority of my friends when our school announced an “extended spring break” by one week, with the intention of moving students back to campus at the beginning of April. For some, it posed unnecessary travel conditions after being told not to completely move out, but eventually, having to make the repeat trip to fully move out a week later.
For example, a friend over at Boston College (BC) was updated one day before my school, on March 11, that students were to move off campus by March 15 and commence remote learning for the rest of the semester. Similarly, Harvard sent students home with the intention of not bringing them back on campus for the rest of the Spring 2020 semester.
Being able to think and act fast, this shows how schools keep their students’ best interest in mind, regardless of the complexities that have to be handled by administration later on. Schools like BC and Harvard cared more about safety, made one, final decision and acted on it. While my peers and I were not too upset considering the dynamic nature of the virus and the unpredictability of the situation, we were wondering why our school didn’t seem to be taking notes from our surrounding campuses.
Financial health of the university
Try to figure out what financial state your school may be in. Were there any amends to dining, housing, student activity fees, etc. at the time of coronavirus?
Chances are, your college/university will be in a financial strain because of lower enrollment rates for Fall 2020. While I unfortunately do not have the stats or research to predict enrollment in the future, you may want to know how funds will eventually impact your financial capability to attend that school.
For example, Babson College was able to roll out a plan for an adjusted room and board just a few days after dismissing their students from campus.
“Although enrollment leaders can’t assuage financial concerns and other anxieties resulting from the pandemic, they can prioritize sharing scholarship opportunities and financial aid information with students and parents early and often.” - Madeleine Rhyneer, How COVID-19 impacts the enrollment funnel, from awareness to decision
In general, you will want to see how willing schools were to provide resources and aid to students. Which leads into this next consideration...
Willingness to help students in a time of need
Just a few weeks after we were dismissed from campus, my school set up an Emergency Relief Fund ready for students who were in some financial binds due to either international student status or no longer having work study programs.
BC is another example of a school with administration that stepped in to help their students out. After only being given four days to vacate the campus, a BC Law professor, Hiba Hafiz, worked with their Faculty for Justice in order to help students with storage, transportation needs, and housing. 114 members of BC faculty volunteered to lend their students a hand.
It may sound cliche, but actions do speak louder than words. Think about what kind of faculty interactions and support you want both on and off campus . Do your schools reflect that?
How quickly did it take for them to decide pass/fail grading policies?
Wellesley is a school that mandated a credit/non-grading policy. While there was a petition to reduce all grades to A/A- for the semester, the school was careful to not let students be unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged by the situation. However, the board took necessary measures to ensure transparency and address other concerns by students as well.
For me, I was given two options: A - Pass/Fail all courses for the semester or B - maintain normal letter grading. Because the school also extended this decision to be made after final exams and final grades were submitted, students were able to gauge where they were in their academic standings. This flexibility was greatly appreciated.
For your schools, was there a petition by students? How long did it take them to decide? Did the administration care about fair/unfair advantages to students or about giving them a choice? Take this chance to inspect how much administration takes students’ voices into account.
Transparency with students
Is the university (with respect to the publishing date of this article) on track with creating a reopening plan for the upcoming semester? Or perhaps, not having a confirmed plan, is the school being or trying to be transparent with their students?
With or without a pandemic, it’s always nice to be able to go on a school website and immediately be able to find what you’re looking for. See if the schools have a full timeline of COVID-19 updates listed in an archive or record for easy access. (In fact, those timelines are what helped me get the info I needed for this article).
Transparency will never be overrated within any institution, especially between student and administration. If it’s not made clear on any page of the website, don’t hesitate to reach out and try to find answers as to what the school may be planning and how that would affect you, as a student.
*For international students: look into whether the school had allowed their int’l students to stay on campus during the rapid move-out process.
This gives you a good gauge of how flexible the school was willing to be. Because COVID-19 resulted in a number of countries closing their borders, many were left to figure out how long they could remain on campus, whether the school was forcing them out immediately, whether they had to pay extra to stay a few weeks to figure out other accommodations, etc.
For most colleges and universities like my own, international students were allowed to extend their stay on campus because of travel restrictions to and from Italy and China, for example. While one of my roommates had to pay an extra fee to remain on campus from March through May, another decided to fly back home ASAP. At that point, another concern that comes to mind is the flexibility of professors providing for their students in different time zones.
How are professors catering to the students who are awake while they are asleep? The consideration that one of my media professors had shown was through her willingness to hold two class sessions, one in the morning and one at night. While most students eventually switched to watching class recordings, the consideration she had for her students in providing asynchronous class materials was something that made her a standout professor.
Has this school become more flexible regarding standardized testing scores?
Chances are, if you had been unfortunate enough to miss out on your SAT/ACT exam time the anxiety that accompanied it was soon to follow. Fortunately, many schools have opted to make standardized testing scores optional for admissions.
Boston University (BU) recognized the necessary precautions that the College Board had taken in choosing to suspend testing. BU has chosen to go test-optional for undergraduates applying for Fall 2021 and Spring 2022 semesters, citing one reason as “University officials felt it was important ‘to do our part, to reduce the anxiety and stress that goes with this process that is now heightened for these high school juniors.’”
Now, this is advice I would give regardless of pandemic circumstances. But if your dream school is one that has made standardized test scores optional, take advantage of this opportunity and send in that application! Oftentimes students get overlooked because of their seemingly lower-than average test scores, but you have many more chances to shine in interviews, on paper with your resumes, and through the (dreaded) common-app essay. Believe it or not, schools are about to change. Student bodies are about to change. And your presence can be a key part of that.
This situation has revealed the adaptability and thoroughness with which universities are either well-equipped or ill-equipped. You don’t want to enter a school that you know has professors who were not empathetic towards students during this time, nor do you want to go to a school that took too long to respond and ended up rushing everyone out in a matter of one weekend.
However, this does not apply to just this time frame immediately during and post-COVID-19 either. The way universities have responded and planned here on out will determine many college decisions in the future. Don’t think of this as a one-off event. Think of it as your chance to discover and then dig your roots deep into the community that you want to call family for a long time to come.
Have any other suggestions or stories as a student dealing with COVID-19? Leave them in the comments below!
If you're looking for a quick and easy resource, Road2College has the deets on a few more schools other than those in listed above. Click here to read: How Colleges Respond to Crises