How School Counselors and Teachers Can Prepare the Class of 2021 for College

The coronavirus sent shockwaves through the class of 2020. High school students missed their senior proms and commencements, and couldn’t attend many of the college freshman experiences they were looking forward to in the fall. Now the class of 2021 is getting ready to graduate. Many schools are opting for in-person graduation ceremonies and some are hosting socially distanced proms. 

While it might seem like life is returning to normal, the graduating class still faces an uncertain college future. As a school counselor or educator (and in some cases both), you can serve as a sympathetic ear and a source of information and advice as you connect with these students remotely. 

The Pandemic is Driving Major Changes

One thing you may notice as you meet with students is that more graduates are changing their intended majors. This is a trend that was noticed at the college level and has trickled down into high school counseling sessions. 

“For about the last two years, we’ve had around 270 to 290 change of major discussions each academic year,” says Bob Shipp, associate director of university advisement at Baylor University. “In the fall, we had 244 and we haven’t even started spring. I’m anticipating a larger surge in those [discussions this semester].” 

Some students are changing majors because the structure of classes do not adapt well to online learning. Others are doing so because of the economy — they want to graduate with a degree that they can use. 

“My advice is that they study something that they are interested in and are possibly good at because that will give them the most success and it will maximize their potential,” says educational consultant Debra Felix. “If they chose to major in something else because they think it will be more financially productive in the future, that could be a disaster.”

It’s not uncommon for college graduates to leave their chosen field shortly after getting a job. These students discover that they’d rather follow their passions or interests, regardless of what they studied in college.

However, there is a silver lining in these major changes. Concern over the pandemic has inspired some students to pursue new fields they might not have considered before. Public health programs across the country have seen a boom in enrollment, from undergraduate minors to master’s programs. 

“People interested in public health are interested in solving complex problems,” says Annie Gjelsvik, director of the Masters of Public Health program at Brown University. “The COVID pandemic is a complex issue that’s in the forefront every day.” Applications to Brown’s public health master’s program increased 75 percent since the start of the pandemic. 

Both teachers and counselors can talk to students about their majors and let them know it’s okay to enter college with an undeclared major or to change their field of study. You can help alleviate some of the pressure that comes with declaring a major before they even leave high school. In some cases, teachers might know the students better than their counselors and can guide them based on their interests. 

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More Students Are Reconsidering Their University Options 

Along with changing their majors or minors, more students are reconsidering their college plans. As you counsel or teach your students, you may notice a shift in where your current high school seniors are applying and changes in their college priorities. 

According to a survey by CollegeData, 23 percent of college students changed their plans because of the pandemic. Of high school seniors, 44 percent of those affected chose a different four-year college, while 39 percent opted for a two-year college instead.  

One major shift caused by the pandemic is the desire to learn closer to home. This allows students to save money while also having a safe space in the event they are infected with COVID-19. 

“Students who choose to study closer to home (for vastly cheaper tuition) will fuel a surge in enrollment at community colleges and elsewhere — if not in the fall, then soon after,” writes John Miley, senior associate editor at personal finance and business forecasting magazine Kiplinger. “Vocational training programs, national online-only schools and nontraditional online courses will see more interest.”

State universities have already noticed a significant uptick in local and in-state students. Applications from in-state residents are up by 26 percent at the University of Texas at Arlington. They are up by 20 percent at Ohio State. 

“We are going to be a more regional and local university,” says Bob McMaster, vice provost and dean at the University of Minnesota. “The spheres of geography have certainly changed this year.” 

Conversely, applications from international students have dropped. At the University of Minnesota, for example, international applicants dropped by 28 percent while the University of Florida saw a drop of 50 percent.

Students are not only impacted by their own desires, but also by their parents. According to a survey by Brian Communications in November 2020, 49 percent of parents would prefer their kids to attend a college or university closer to home. This is a 25 percent increase from earlier findings in April of the same year. One-third of students agree with their parents and would rather stay close to home.

Students are motivated to change schools based on a variety of factors: safety, money, and even the culture of the university. As a teacher or counselor, you can help students find a place that feels right to them and helps them thrive in the coming years. 

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The Online vs. In-Person Debate Continues

One issue that many high school seniors are struggling with is whether they should opt for in-person learning. More colleges are starting to offer in-person instruction again and it’s up to the students to determine what they think is safe. 

So far, studies show that students want to learn in person. According to a survey by ReGenerations led by its president Jessica Stollings-Holder, only 11 percent of Gen Zers agree that Zoom and other online meeting platforms are as effective as meeting in person. Additionally, only two percent of respondents want fully online learning. 

Of the remaining 98 percent, 72 percent only want to learn in-person, while 25 percent are willing to take some online and some in-person classes.

“I expect new students to really want to be engaged even more after having the experience of being distanced for a while,” says Walter Kimbrough, president at Dillard University. “This year’s college freshmen didn’t get the traditional high school graduation experience, so they are very eager for a coming of age experience that college can provide.”

That said, the current batch of college students aren’t necessarily taking advantage of in-person instruction. The pandemic is still affecting some learners who still prefer remote learning. 

“We’ve got greater numbers going online to attend those classes and diminishing numbers sitting in class,” says Carlos Hawley, professor at North Dakota State University. 

The university offers both online and in-person classes. While some students stay home because of the pandemic, others opt for virtual learning because there’s no one else in the classroom. One NDSU professor says only two students on average physically attended a 13-person class on advanced media writing.    

Regardless of whether students feel safe to return to the college classroom this fall, the pandemic will likely create a seismic shift in online learning. Online colleges will become more standardized. 

“Higher education is also starting to experience the technology-driven consolidation of market share and power that’s already occurred in other industries,” write Sean Gallagher and Jason Palmer, executive director at Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and general partner at New Markets Venture Partners respectively. “This is already happening in online learning: 2,500 colleges offer online programs, but the 100 largest players have nearly 50% of student enrollment.”

High school counselors and teachers can expect more students to ask about online universities in the future. 

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Students Are Considering a Gap Year

All of the uncertainty around the future college experience for high school students is driving some to take a gap year.

The number of first-year University of Pennsylvania students taking a gap year has increased by 300 percent in 2020, says former dean of admissions Eric Furda. Some students wanted to stay home for their safety, while others opted to wait for the full on-campus experience. 

“Many instructors, like students, found themselves in the world of online education for the first time this year,” Laura Berlinsky-Schine writes at CollegeVine. “That meant there was a great deal of experimentation and adjustment — which, according to some, didn’t make for the learning experience students were hoping for. Taking a gap year means students can skip over this period and return when they can take courses in-person, or after teachers have honed their online teaching skills.” 

As a teacher or counselor, you understand the stress that came with switching to remote learning. Students also felt the pain of this transition, and graduating high school students don’t want to repeat it. 

While the pandemic is one of the main reasons why students took gap years, there are other reasons why graduating students take time off. Some want to work and save money while others want to spend time considering major life decisions. Not every high schooler knows what they want to study and where the best place for them is. 

That being said, not everyone has the ability to take a year off. “While gap years can have… positive effects, it should be noted that they tend to be available more easily to people with privileged backgrounds,” says Alex Gailey, personal finance reporter for NextAdvisor. “A majority of survey participants were white and from families where the estimated household income was over $100,000 a year.”

You may have students in your school who want to take gap years for different reasons. While it is ultimately their decision, you can counsel them (or offer advice from a teacher’s perspective) on whether time off is the right call based on their specific needs.

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