Many New Hampshire families reevaluating their plans for higher education

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The ritual of college move-in will not the same this year.

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High school seniors are taking a long, hard look at college plans, as COVID-19 threatens to move the fall semester online, and family finances and college savings take a hit along with the rest of the economy.

According to a new survey by Junior Achievement USA (JA) and Citizens Bank, more than two-thirds of teens report they are either somewhat or very concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their families and day-to-day lives. 

The survey of 1,000 U.S. teens, ages 13 to 18 and not currently attending college, found that 44 percent of high school juniors and seniors say COVID-19 has impacted their plans to pay for college.

Christine Roberts, head of student lending for Citizens Bank, said one positive takeaway is families are talking about finances, something the bank has always encouraged as part of its mission. 

“We call it, ‘the other talk you have to have with your kids’ and it’s all about how you will pay for and finance college,” said Roberts. “More than 70 percent of the students who responded said they have been talking with parents and say they understand how this is affecting the family financially,” 

Nearly a quarter of teenagers say their parents or caregivers have shared with them their concerns about paying bills while 13 percent say their parent or caregiver has lost their job due to COVID-19, leading them to consider a public school or a college closer to home to lower travel expenses. 

“If there’s a second round of COVID-19, it is better to be closer to home should colleges have to quickly shut down again,” said Roberts. “I’m happy that families are having those conversations and not waiting until the 11th hour.”

Decision day

May 1 in the college-bound world is called decision day. It is the deadline for students to accept offers of admission, however many colleges are pushing the date ahead to June 1. “A lot of schools are still grappling with what the fall semester will look like,’ Roberts said. “And families are waiting to see. There’s a lot of unknowns.”

Brenda Poznanski, director of school counseling and admission for Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua, agreed. “We all have to wait and see. I’ve been getting a lot of information from colleges that are planning to open in the fall, but they are cautiously optimistic.” 

Bishop Guertin is a college preparatory school, and many of its students applied and received early acceptance, according to Poznanski. 

“Now those decisions may change with the economy or if colleges go remote,” she said. “Kids may defer. We’ve been talking about it, and I have been forwarding information on a daily basis from colleges.”

According to the survey, 30 percent of those whose plans have changed said they have had to delay their college start date and 13 percent said they have changed the school they plan to attend.

But those who defer may not find much to do. “A gap year is a dramatic decision. What will they do with that time?” Poznanski said. “Typically, they would go abroad to study, work on a farm, or do AmeriCorps, but those activities may be shut down as well. Internships and apprenticeships may not be available, either.” 

She said juniors are probably more anxious than the seniors because they really don’t know what is going to happen, they cannot visit campuses (typically done during April vacation) and SAT and ACT exams, used in admissions scoring by some colleges, were suspended for May and June. 

Even careful, long-range planners may find themselves in trouble, Roberts said, as college savings plans (called 529s) have been impacted by the stock market. Almost 60 percent surveyed say they are now more likely to take out student loans.

“We are doing a lot to help people who are struggling right now,” said Roberts. “We have just launched, a resource for all things financial with a holistic view of managing money, including higher education costs. We want people to have the information to make the best decision and, quite frankly, borrow as little as possible.”

One NH student’s view 

A graduate of Plymouth Regional High School, Rhys Harris, received admittance to Wesleyan University in Connecticut through early decision and was “incredibly excited” to start college in the fall. But COVID-19 has put into question aspects of his future that seemed certain just two or three months ago. He said Wesleyan may delay freshman matriculation to the spring.

Harris said he received a generous amount of money from his college, freshman year is paid for but he did plan to work over the summer to save for next year. “Last year, I worked for Hart’s Turkey Farm catering special events and was hoping to go back this summer to work. Since most all of these events have been canceled and food service jobs have mostly disappeared, I am unsure how viable this option will be.”

He said his family has been relatively fortunate as both his parents are still working. He is more worried for what may await him after college. “With the crash of the economy as well, I may end up entering the job market in a turbulent time,” he said. “Many people a decade ago were forced into the job market during the height of the 2008 financial crisis, which has had long-lasting impacts on the lives of young adults at that time.”

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