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Excused absences for college freshmen

Students delay starting higher education over COVID-19 concerns

A student on the campus of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. Associated Press/Photo by Michael Conroy (file)

Excused absences for college freshmen

More first-year college students than ever put their plans on hold this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a recent study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Freshmen classes shrank by 16.1 percent nationally and 22.7 percent at community colleges, the survey found.

Koloud “Kay” Tarapolsi’s daughter would have begun classes this fall at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Instead, the 18-year-old deferred her freshman year to 2021, opting to stay home in Redmond, Wash., and assist with homeschooling her younger siblings and some of the neighbors’ children.

“There were so many factors. Of course, the biggest one, for us, is health,” the middle-aged Tarapolsi told USA Today. “We are completely freaked out if something happens to her, or us, we wouldn’t be able to reach each other.”

Many families cite concerns like Tarapolsi’s, including a need for older teens to stay home and help out with increased family demands during the pandemic. Others complain about how colleges and universities handled the interrupted spring semester and express low confidence in the quality of instruction offered this fall. When Harvard University announced plans to house students on campus even though they had to log in to virtual classes from their dorm rooms, many parents decided to save their tuition dollars for another year. Harvard’s strategy does not appear to have paid off. The storied Ivy League school’s freshman enrollment dropped 14 percent this year and 20 percent overall.

Families are not the only ones skeptical of campus pandemic protocols. A group of 300 college admissions officers rated their institutions’ reopening plans in September, with 51 percent giving themselves a C and 9 percent a D.

Financial experts warn delaying college by a year could produce costly consequences. Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published a study earlier this year quantifying the expense of putting off higher education for one year at about $90,000. That amount reflects a year of lost wages with a bachelor’s degree as well as the cumulative lifetime effects of the lost year’s earning power. Lost momentum factors into the equation, as well.

A 2005 research project by the National Center for Education Statistics—still cited by many experts—found U.S. students who delayed college by one year were 30 percent less likely ever to enroll in a four-year degree program than those who continued from high school without interruption.

Many colleges and universities already walk a sagging financial tightrope dragged down by years of declining enrollment. At last count, 65 colleges had closed permanently across the country since 2016, according to the website Education Dive. Each one represents hundreds—sometimes thousands—of students plus a campus full of professors and support staff. Shuttered campuses also frequently leave behind a host town turned ghost town, bereft of its steady clientele of coffee shop enthusiasts and late-night snackers.

“Any wise [university] president has known for years that changes are coming, and the wisest were leading their schools through change and adjustment,” Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Seminary and a WORLD board member, said in the spring. “COVID-19 is a bomb set in the midst of those plans, and it has detonated.”

Meanwhile, Tarapolsi is temporarily banking the $35,000 it would have cost for her daughter’s freshman year. The family holds out hope for a more typical college experience post-pandemic.

Laura Edghill

Laura is an education correspondent for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and serves as the communications director for her church. Laura resides with her husband and three sons in Clinton Township, Mich.



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