COVID-19 is leaving many students uncertain about attending college in fall. Considering a person may be symptom-free for up to two weeks, and there is not enough testing, clarity regarding liability, and understanding about how the virus spreads with prolonged exposure (for say, breathing for two hours in a small classroom), universities have the losing task of deciding when they want to risk a full return of students.
California State University, the largest four-year public university system in the U.S., announced last week that they will be online this fall (some courses may be on campus, as a chem lab at the kitchen table does not seem safe). Some smaller universities intend to return to campus.
As a PhD student and an adjunct professor, being online this past semester went better than I anticipated. While I prefer in-person learning, I feel confident that online classes this fall will be even better given instructors have time to prepare.
If an undergrad is deciding about fall, these are five questions I would ask myself.
1. If everything was “normal,” what would my plan be for fall?
It is important to think about these decisions before developing further options. Does an individual truly want to go to college and why? Be honest.
2. If I don’t take college classes, what is my specific plan?
Watching everything on the internet is not a goal. If a person has a plan, taking time off can prove beneficial. However, a gap year may not be as valuable with the world in various pandemic stages and fewer internships available (Google has said most staff can work from home until 2021.) So, if not school, what is the plan? Work at a grocery store to make money? Volunteer in a hospice? Care for family members? Apprentice in a garage? A person may stay more plan-focused by setting benchmarks, such as if I have not started working by August 15, I will take two classes at the community college.
3. What are my concerns about online classes, and are they well-founded?
Many of us struggle with unexpected change. It can be worse when that change is also disappointing. It is okay to be sad about missing human connection, frustrated to be living at home, or unhappy about adventure being delayed. Yet, in addition to life growth and the “college experience,” academic learning should still be a huge reason we attend college. Fortunately, that can still happen thanks to online courses.
Part of college should be challenging ourselves to think differently and venture out of our comfort zone. The real world is all about adapting. Doing courses online, in-person, abroad, or however, should offer personal introspection on the ways we learn, study, interact, focus, and more.
The classes I took last semester that moved online were still in real time, however, one professor posted lectures before class. This allowed us to ask more specific questions during class. Considering the subject was unknown to me, to my astonishment, being online worked great because I could re-watch the lecture until I understood it. Some people were surprised we had perfect attendance, but when students could attend from a location of choice, many even signed in early to chat with classmates.
Professors still hold office hours for students. Many classes have sidebar discussions throughout sessions. Group work still exists, so students connect with other classmates. Personally, I grew closer to some of my online classmates because we regularly communicated, and academically, I learned what I needed to learn.
4. How can I make being in school this fall work best for me?
For returning students, not being on campus is a letdown, but at least they know what to expect. For freshmen, overall disappointment can be coupled with uncertainty about starting college. The reality is that the first semester is often the hardest and approximately 30% of college freshmen drop out after the first year. Starting online may prove helpful to some freshmen in understanding college level learning. Community colleges offer this with qualified professors without having to relocate. Additionally, by senior year of college, many students are eager to graduate, so if a solid Plan B is not in place for fall, why not get started? Only 60% of students currently complete their bachelor’s degree at the same institution where they started six-years earlier anyway.
Unsure individuals should consider trying a shorter online class at a community college this summer or registering for a fall class with a friend. If someone worries about a lack of personal connection, reviewing the syllabus before the first class to ensure the words “group work,” “breakouts,” or “partners” is mentioned could be helpful, and if it is not, consider switching classes. Also, signing on to class early with video allows the opportunity to connect with others, and reaching out to someone during or after class (there are ways, depending on the forum) is an option.
5. What makes financial sense?
Graduates from 2017 owe $28,650, on average, from student loan debt. Doing classes online at a community college or public four-year school while living at home might be financially practical. Universities typically require general education classes, such as math or speech. The majority of these often transfer to another school (always check). Also, if a student has accepted a financial aid package from another school or deferred enrollment, they should review their options.
Side note: if a student does not like public speaking – some version of that class is required at nearly every school – consider taking that class online now.
The bottom line is pandemic adjustments are hard for everyone. Ultimately, how much effort a student puts into a class heavily impacts how much they get out of the class. In-person classes are more enjoyable for most students (and professors), but online courses still offer a great alternative to keep learning during this pandemic.