'The unknowns' haunt college students, university officials alike

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Heidi Garay was planning to visit Central Michigan University and Western Michigan University one more time to help her decide where she would attend college in the fall.

But the COVID-19 pandemic halted the Troy High School senior's plans. As she has stayed at home for weeks, she has wondered about what college will be like if she moved away — especially if she has to maintain distance from new college friends and pay to take online classes while on campus.

Troy High School senior Heidi Garay stands outside her Troy home on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. Garay was planning to visit the college campuses of Central Michigan University and Western Michigan University one last time to help her decide where she would attend in the fall. Garay, may scrap those universities and stay home because of the coronavirus outbreak and attend Oakland University.

That's why Garay is still undecided about where to go, and she is now contemplating attending nearby Oakland University instead.

"I am still sort of debating," said Garay, who plans to study psychology. "I don’t understand how we are to shift to back into normal when the semester starts and everything will be fine."

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic has cast Michigan's college-bound seniors, currently enrolled students and higher education officials alike into a world of uncertainty.

From an abrupt halt to the school year to dried up revenue streams to unprecedented campus safety and culture changes, discussions among the college community have been far, deep and wide. 

“The biggest consternation is the number of unknowns,” said Daniel Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities. “This is so unlike any other crisis we’ve dealt with. Universities' leaders are daily doing considerable institutional scenario planning for near-term, mid-term and long-range. The 'what ifs?' are so numerous — and cannot be answered.”

Some clarity on enrollment could emerge shortly from universities who are still asking incoming students to commit during National College Decision Day on Friday. 

Among them are the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, which are asking students to put down deposits to secure their spots in this fall's freshman classes. MSU has told students they could ask for an extension, but they must put down a deposit by June 1.

Other colleges and universities have extended their enrollment deposit deadline to June 1 to give students more time to assess their options and circumstances amid COVID-19. Among them are Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Western Michigan, Michigan Technological and Wayne State universities, along with several private colleges, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling

Some colleges say that June 1 deadline is ceremonial since students can still decide to come even after that day. Eastern Michigan University, for instance, celebrates May 1 as an unofficial decision day, but officials said the school welcomes students to enroll up until the day that classes start on Aug. 31. 

The virus might have cut off prospective students' jobs this summer and affected their parents' employment. But students still have dreams, said EMU President James Smith.

"We don’t want to change the directionality of your futures," said Smith of the students.

Students and families are trying to decide whether to commit, and where, while colleges and universities are still determining whether classes will remain online and if campuses can be made safe while the virus spreads, said Eva Dodds, past president of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling.

"No one is feeling 100% about their decision," said Dodds, who is a Franklin-based independent counselor with Collegewise, a national counseling organization. "They all know what they bought. They don't know what they're investing in."

Meanwhile, some students are contemplating a gap year in the wake of losing milestone events, such as prom and commencement, Dodds said.

"Students want colleges to be honest about what they can’t be honest about yet, what is going to happen on campus this fall," she said. "So it’s a circle of conversation."

The coronavirus has infected 3 million people and killed nearly 210,000 people around the world, including more than 39,000 cases and more than 3,500 deaths in Michigan. After the governor ordered residents to stay home to mitigate the spread of the virus beginning on March 23, cases surged but the number of new infections is starting to moderate as Michigan slowly begins to open back up.

But with no vaccine expected for another 18 months and testing for the virus at a fraction of what experts say it should be, no one can predict whether there will be a second wave.

Many surveys have projected a significant number of students may take next year off.  A national survey by Simpson Scarborough of 573 high school students who had been planning to attend a four-year residential college in the fall showed that more than half of their families’ finances had been affected by the pandemic.

According to the survey, "11% of students who were planning to attend a four-year college before the COVID outbreak now say they will go to a community college, enroll in an online college, or not go to college at all. An 11% drop in incoming freshmen could be enough to create dramatic revenue shortages at many colleges and universities, especially if retention is down as well."

Another survey of high school seniors unveiled this week by consulting firm Art & Science Group showed that 12% of students who already made a deposit no longer intend to attend a four-year college full-time. 

University officials also face uncertainty about how many current students will return this fall.

"We still don’t know from a public standpoint what this is going to look like in the fall, if there might be a resurgence, if there is a need to be flexible with students and flexible with the way we manage classes," said Kedra Ishop, UM vice provost for enrollment management. "We are doing a lot of work to make ourselves more resilient for the future."

Northern Michigan University President Fritz Erickson said for him and other higher education officials, "It is near impossible to predict the future."

“Questions abound concerning state funding, enrollment in the fall and other unforeseen impacts of the pandemic," Erickson said. "We have never had a year with such a disruption to recruitment and helping students with their future plans.”

UM President Mark Schlissel said last week during a tele-town hall that the university is hoping for a "public health-informed" semester with students wearing masks and buildings accommodating fewer people in hopes of getting the community back on a positive trajectory. 

WSU President M. Roy Wilson said as much as he would like students to return, it was "unlikely" they would be back on campus in the fall. Meanwhile, MSU President Samuel Stanley said officials are planning for online classes this fall while maintaining hope that in-person classes can resume.

"It's a big decision for us," Stanley said.

The biggest issues for the state, and its universities, are balancing the challenge of testing for the virus without a vaccine and the need to get the economy running again safely, Wayne State President M. Roy Wilson said during the virtual town hall.

"This is a data-based project," he said. "Based on the data, we have divided industries up into low-risk, medium-risk and high-risk. Based on the risk categories, we are looking at how things can be opened up in a safe way."

EMU's Smith said opening the university might mean that everyone is wearing masks during the fall semester, students may room alone in dorms, and classes could alternate formats, with students attending in person some days and online on others. Custodians have been disinfecting rooms across campus unlike ever before, he added.

"We want to be sure we are bringing people back in the safest environment possible," Smith said.

For Grace DeLong, a sophomore studying sociology at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, her biggest concern is finances. The temporary shuttering of her job at a children's resale store has already cost her more than $1,000 in income. 

"I pay for my own schooling," said DeLong. "I haven’t worked this past month and it's still uncertain if we’ll be able to work any time soon. It important to have that money so I can pay my bills."

Revenue is an area of uncertainty for colleges and universities too, Hurley said. They face possible drops in state support, federal research funding and tuition payments.

And it's not just Michigan. An April report from Moody's Investment Service supported Hurley's projection, saying higher institutions worldwide will cope with lost income, higher expenses and lower enrollment because of the pandemic.

In Michigan, state budget officials have projected a $1 billion to $3 billion shortfall in this year’s budget that will likely reduce state funding for public universities.

That, in turn, could affect tuition — a perennial concern among students before the pandemic. Those concerns are magnified with one-fourth of Michigan workers filing for unemployment; and other students' families facing salary cuts or furloughs.

“Families have saved for years for college and now they are worried that the money they have saved for college may be needed to pay for rent or groceries, and so young people are thinking they may have to take a year off,” said Albion College President Mauri A. Ditzler. "Young people are thinking they may have to take a year off. Given how important it is to get bright young people educated and out in the workforce, we don’t think that should happen."

That's why higher education institutions are "bending over backwards to open the door to them," Hurley said.

At Albion, an anonymous donor is covering tuition for incoming students from Michigan.

Michigan State, Central Michigan and Western Michigan University officials have said in recent days that they will freeze tuition for the 2020-21 school year.

Some schools, such as Wayne State and Eastern Michigan, are dropping ACT and SAT test scores that typically are required for admission, and other schools are acknowledging some students will need more financial aid.

EMU's alumni Pay-it-Forward fund, GameAbove, is also offering $400 gift to each new incoming freshman student in the fall to help them get started amid COVID-19.

Central Michigan announced deferred payment and flexible payment plans, increased scholarships, and need-based aid and guaranteed on-campus employment for first-year students. 

Western Michigan, like nearly all schools, quickly transformed into virtual communities as a way to showcase what they offer for future students. 

To bridge the lack of in-person interactions, officials had more one-on-one conversations with prospective students and their families through electronic means. 

Those private talks became more personal, and allowed families to bring up issues they might have avoided during in-person, small-group settings, said Jennifer Bott, WMU provost and vice president for academic affairs.

"College-going for any family in the best of circumstances is high-stress," Bott said. "Picking the right school, where your friends are going — these are very high stakes for our families. Layer in on top of it a global pandemic, we really want to be a resource for our families."

Meanwhile, Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities collaborated to provide students with the names and phone numbers of key contacts at its more than three dozen member institutions.

“We want students to know our schools are there for them, financial aid officials are available to help make college affordable and plans are moving forward for the start of the school year in the fall,” said Robert Lefevre, the association's president.

In spite of the uncertainties, college and university leaders are projecting optimism about the prospects for new students.

“My hope is that we are able to open this fall with a strong semblance of face-to-face classes and campus community,” CMU President Robert Davies said.

“I hope that as we move forward through this process that we have a group of students that comes to Central Michigan University ready and eager to learn, grown and prosper and be part of our community.”