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College Consultant Grant Calder Speaks About COVID-19's Impact on US Colleges & Universities

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

Grant Calder has worked in College Consulting and Admissions Counseling for over 30 years and is Co-director of College Counseling at Friends' Central School in Philadelphia, where he also teaches American History and German. In the past, he has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University in Philadelphia, and the Middlesex and Choate boarding schools in New England. Additionally, he was a guest teacher at the Evangelisches Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster in Berlin, Germany. Grant has two children who are currently 12th graders and both "headed off" (whether actually or virtually) to college next Fall.

Recently, Grant agreed to have a series of conversations with us about everything that's going on in the U. S. landscape of colleges and universities, specifically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are key takeaways from our first conversation - six video clips accompanied by full transcripts (edited for clarity).

What are some of the greatest impacts on U. S. colleges and universities as a result of COVID-19?

Grant: Well, the biggest overall impact, of course, is financial, and that breaks down to a few different areas. Colleges are terrified that kids are not going to show up next Fall. That's going to cause a blow to the colleges' incomes, firstly in tuition and room & board revenue. Secondly, colleges have already canceled their summer programs which are often very important profit centers for them. Some are running those programs online, but there's obviously not nearly as remunerative for the institutions has it would be as having the kids on campus. Many of them are also taking a big hit on endowments (financial assets that are donated to universities). This past Spring, when most of the campuses closed in mid-semester, they were forced, more or less, to provide pro-rated reimbursements for room and board fees, although not for tuition fees because they continued their programs online. Colleges are also facing concerns that they currently have no way to predict how much additional financial aid support families are going to need in the coming year, many of whom have experienced significant financial losses themselves. Parents have lost jobs and college savings have been diminished.

All of this has added up to a perfect storm for these institutions, and I'm afraid in the long run it will mean that some hundreds of them will probably not survive more than the next year or two.

What has the impact been for current 12th-grade students? How many kids may be enrolling in college a year from this Fall?

Grant: Well, I feel sorry for them. I think they're dealing with a lot of uncertainty and disappointment about the ends of their own 12th-grade years. They don't know whether the beginning of their college years is going to be a normal beginning or not. The national reporting date was May 1st. Some colleges have pushed that back to June 1st. It looks like families and students are making deposits at the normal rate, more or less, but the colleges don't know, and the families themselves really don't know, whether they're going to follow through.

What about deferment for current 12th-graders? Are more of them asking to do gap years?

Grant: Right. The colleges also are very worried about that. Typically, gap year discussions occur before students commit. Admitted students would normally contact the college ahead of time, say "I'd like a deferral", the college responds with a yes or no, and based on that response, the student would decide whether or not to commit to that college. This year, everything is up in the air, so as of May 1st, most students have committed already - some will have to by June 1st - and depending on how things develop over the summer, many families may decide not to send their kids to college if they can't actually go in person, and may not want to pay full tuition fees for remote learning. Whether those will be considered as deferrals or not is, at this point, unknown.

What does this mean for current 11th graders? How many kids may be enrolling in college a year from this Fall?

Grant: That's a great question, and the answer is that it could range anywhere from not enough kids to a tsunami of kids. The latter would overwhelm the colleges and distort class sizes. Unfortunately, I think that what's going to happen is that the people least able to adjust to the COVID-19 impact will be hit the hardest. So, kids who are “marginal” college attendees, which is to say, for whom financing is a big challenge for them, or for whom there isn’t a tradition of higher education in their family, are the most likely not go to college next Fall or the following Fall.

The question is whether or not that loss to colleges will be matched by the increase in Fall 2021 of kids who want to return to college after having deferred a year. But those kids are not going to be the same kids returning, meaning that the impact on the institutions is not going to be even. Sadly, what this means is that the institutions already most vulnerable will be hit hardest by the loss of these “marginal” contenders, while the institutions that are the most competitive and already have the biggest pools will benefit from this shift and will relatively fare much better.

Given how much uncertainty there is, what are some ways in which parents can plan ahead right now?

Grant: Well, I think the issue for parents of 12th graders is the most pressing. I think the best plan right now is to deposit with a school that has admitted students, is appealing to them, and then see how it goes. It's possible that if conditions change during the Summer, some families are going to choose to back out. They may lose their deposit, but that is a loss worth risking at the moment.

As it becomes clear what colleges are going to be able to offer in the Fall, families will have another set of choices to make. I think colleges will bend over backwards if they have to do their full terms online, to make it as appealing as they can, and I think colleges are going to work extremely hard to be open in some way.

Of course, the colleges will not necessarily have the final the decision to make themselves about if they're going be open then, but right now they are desperately trying to come up with scenarios that will be acceptable to state and local governments to at least have “soft openings” in the Fall. Some example scenarios - single rooms only, large lectures done online, small seminar classes allowed to meet while practicing social distancing measures. They are just they are investigating every possible way of combining necessary adjustments amid COVID-19 with some kind of on-campus experience for their students.

Thinking long term... beyond COVID-19, do you have any thoughts about how all of this may change or influence higher education?

Grant: There has been a major move by students away from Humanities and Social Science programs, and more towards professional and job-oriented programs, which could be exacerbated by the COVID-19 impact. On the other hand, there is already a sense among some people that there may be a reaction against some of those movements, because students really are expressing that they want the traditional college experience; being away from school and college this Spring has made a lot of people more appreciative of the many advantages of the traditional college program.

One of the things that's really struck me this Spring teaching online is the extent to which it has reassured me that teaching in person, in the in the seminar style, has tremendous advantages which do not begin to be matched by the virtual experience, and our students are saying exactly the same thing.

Speaking of things online, I'm sure that a lot of students this year have had to choose their colleges by taking virtual tours. What have their experiences been with that? How confident are they feeling in their choices?

Grant: They seem to have handled it very well. My cohort of students is lucky enough, generally, to have been able to visit their colleges before they applied, so they would have been making return visits in most cases, which they weren’t able to do in person. But the virtual tours and online events for admitted students have generally been well received by the kids, and well handled by the colleges.

I think in some ways the current 11th graders are going to be at an advantage in the college search process because they will have to look at all the institutions they are considering exclusively online. Perhaps in person next year, but at this point, online. Colleges have been working very hard to present themselves well online, and I find it's less likely for kids to be completely turned off by, for example, the fact that they happen to visit on a cold, rainy day, or by a tour guide they thought was strange – or, completely entranced by a tour guide they thought wonderful. These are not good reasons to choose a college.

Having to do their searches online, I find, has encouraged kids to look deeper. Online, they take virtual tours, they look at prospective student programs, they check apartments, course offerings, they see what's required for a particular major, they look at what extracurricular activities are available – we’re finding that they actually learn more in a couple of hours online than they would in three hours on campus.

Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by guiding them towards making informed decisions and finding the best-fit schools for their children. Our consultants specialize in counseling families and helping them to find and secure placement for their children in preschools, private day schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, or schools with particular program offerings, such as special needs support.




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