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With the fall semester a big question mark, students are considering alternatives

Nick Lebel of Norton was set to enroll in Marist College's Dublin program in the fall. Now there's a chance it could be canceled and he may opt for the University of Maine.
Nick Lebel of Norton was set to enroll in Marist College's Dublin program in the fall. Now there's a chance it could be canceled and he may opt for the University of Maine.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Brooke Libby’s oldest daughter, a junior at the University of Chicago, has already declared that she will hold off registering for the fall semester if the only option is remote online classes. Her younger daughter, a freshman at Bowdoin College, is leaning that way too.

“I can understand,” said Libby. “If school is truly going to be in a remote fashion, I don’t see why they would want to eat up a semester or quarter fully that way."

Libby, a director of college counseling at Gould Academy, a boarding school in Bethel, Maine, is having similar discussions with nervous high school seniors and their parents. Some are starting to research the admissions deferral process — which would allow them to start college later than planned — and others are having second thoughts about where to go to school due to the coronavirus pandemic, Libby said.

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The fall semester poses a looming financial dilemma for colleges and students and their families. In the coming weeks high school seniors will have to commit to a college and undergraduates will have to register for classes. Meanwhile, institutions themselves must determine how they will reopen amid a pandemic and the financial toll of it.

Colleges and universities across the country are already preparing in case students cannot come to campus and learn, exploring scenarios such as continuing virtual classes, scrapping large lectures, and delaying the fall semester by a few weeks or even months.

How this will all shake out is entirely unclear. Questions remain about how many freshmen will enroll in college, whether they will actually show up in September, and how many returning students will register for classes, instead of opting for a leave of absence or dropping out.

The financial risks for colleges could be severe. Many have already lost millions from refunding students room and board this semester and spending on additional technology to provide online instruction.

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On Friday, the head of the Vermont State College system recommended closing three of its five residential campuses permanently, including Northern Vermont University’s two campuses and Vermont Technical College’s Randolph location, due to stagnant enrollment and the financial cost of the pandemic. The system expects a nearly $10 million operating deficit this fiscal year. Next year, enrollment could decline by as much as 20 percent on the system’s residential campuses with a corresponding $12 million deficit, Jeb Spaulding, the chancellor of the Vermont State College System, said.

Many other colleges and universities across the country are also worried about how the coronavirus could reshape the higher education marketplace.

Early indications are that it is already starting to alter consumer behavior when it comes to higher education.

Libby said one Gould Academy senior from China was prepared to enroll in Boston University in the fall, but now his parents are pushing him to consider Penn State University. If travel restrictions are lifted, and if the student can come back to the US to study, his parents think he would be safer in rural Pennsylvania than in Boston, Libby said.

A survey in late March by Maguire Associates, a Concord-based higher education consulting firm, of prospective US students and their parents found that interest in enrolling in colleges near virus hot spots including Boston and New York dropped by more than 10 percent. Before the COVID-19 spread, 56 percent of students said they were likely to enroll in Boston-area colleges, but only 42 percent felt the same by the end of March, according to the survey.

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The survey also found that parents are more likely to be considering alternative options closer to home, than their children. Lower- and middle-income families are also more apt to consider living at home due to the virus, suggesting that they may be feeling more of the financial pressures of the pandemic, said Kristin R. Tichenor, a special consultant with Maguire Associates and senior adviser to the president at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

“Colleges have to assume that enrolling populations will be smaller than what they were,” Tichenor said.

In a normal year, high school seniors would be selecting and committing to a college now. Colleges usually require students to make a decision about enrolling by May 1 and require families to send in a deposit of several hundred dollars to hold the spot.

This year, many institutions have moved that deadline to June 1 or later. After canceling big college tours for prospective students in April, many institutions also set up virtual visits with video walk-throughs of campuses.

Universities are also fielding requests from students whose parents have lost jobs and need more financial aid, meaning that families are taking longer to make decisions and adding to the uncertainty about which colleges families can afford.

Choosing a college has become harder than ever for students.

Nicholas Lebel, a senior in Norton, had his heart set on attending Marist College’s Dublin program in his freshman year. It was going to be his first time out of the US, and he is working at Target, earning hazard pay these days, to save money to study abroad.

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But Lebel knows that the Dublin program could get canceled if the pandemic doesn’t ease soon, and he isn’t sure he wants to attend Marist College otherwise. He was unable to visit the campus in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., or talk to professors before the college moved fully online and emptied out.

“I’ve been holding off on committing, because if it doesn’t happen, I’d have to go to Marist and I could go there and hate it,” Lebel, 18, said.

For now, he’s in chat groups with other freshmen admitted to the Dublin program, waiting to find out if their first-year plans are going to be upended. If the Dublin program is canceled, Lebel said he might enroll in the University of Maine instead. He has toured the public university’s flagship campus in Orono and liked the students and atmosphere.

“I am confused and worried,” Lebel said. “It’s tough.”

Even incoming freshmen or current college students who are are thinking about deferring admissions or holding off on the fall semester to avoid online classes are facing questions about what to do instead.

Usually, students who take a gap year spend their time traveling abroad, doing a big service project, or working to save money to pay for college. But in an age of travel restrictions, social distancing orders, and high unemployment, making a Plan B is hard, counselors said.

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Students may consider hiking the Appalachian Trail instead, finding online internships, or launching their own projects from home that could show colleges that they will be productive if they defer for a quarter or semester.

Some counselors said colleges will have to do more if they want students to come this fall, whether it’s to classes on campus or online. If the fall semester has to be online, they said, colleges must find a way to connect students to co-curricular activities, such as clubs, because those more spontaneous conversations and interactions that occur outside of the classroom are a cornerstone of the residential campus experience.

Colleges and universities may also have to charge students less tuition and fees for the online experience, college consultants and counselors said.

Libby, the director of college counseling in Maine, said students and families have to ultimately decide what options are financially feasible and most safe for them. She is confident that colleges will improve their online instruction by the fall, but it still may not work for students who flounder in isolation and without the supports and face-to-face interactions with their peers and professors.

Students “need to really evaluate how well they’ll be able to thrive and not thrive in a remote learning environment,” Libby said. “They’ve got to look inward first."


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.