An uncertain fall means once college-bound students are weighing their options

Schools brace for declining student enrollment and financial fallout because of COVID-19

A teen works on a laptop at a table.
Zoie Kruse, 18, is a graduating senior from Century High School in Rochester, Minn. Because of COVID-19, Kruse is now debating whether to take a gap year and delay her college plans of attending Monmouth College in Illinois as a chemistry major come fall semester.
Courtesy of Josie Kruse

Three months ago, Zoie Kruse, 18, of Rochester, Minn., thought that her biggest worries would be where she would attend school in the fall. 

Now, the Century High School senior is debating whether she will even go to college this year.

“I never thought that I would be taking a gap year,” said Kruse, who was planning to attend Monmouth College in Illinois. “But if colleges are doing distance learning for the fall semester, it might be worth it.”

Kruse hopes to major in chemistry, but with concerns growing about the impacts of COVID-19 keeping her physically from campus, she may just forgo classes and take a yearlong internship instead.

But it’s a debate that Kruse wishes she didn’t need to have. 

“If I did decide to do distance learning, I am worried about the things I would be missing out on,” she said. “My college orientation is already online this year, which is a lot different than an in-person experience. Not to mention distance learning is challenging. Not being able to make connections with my professors in the crucial first year of college would be hard, and I feel like it could impact me negatively in the future.”

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to upend the dreams of many high school seniors who imagined setting foot into campus, moving into dorms, learning in lecture halls and labs, gathering in bustling student unions and cafeterias and embracing all that college life had to offer. 

Members of the class of 2020 are left in a weird place. Some soon-to-be grads are preparing to leave high school and are eager to enter their next phase of life, only to have doubts about whether they can look forward to a relatively traditional transition into the next chapter of their lives. 

‘I would be missing the beginning of college’

Rylee Thompson, 18, a senior at Mankato East High School, looked forward to making new friends and taking another step toward her career goals. But the uncertainty of COVID-19 has left her questioning about her fall plans. 

“If school was closed for the fall, I would be devastated considering I’m missing the end of my senior year already,” Thompson said. “I would be missing the beginning of college and I would miss not one, but two huge parts of my life.”

May is a time when students are graduating from Minnesota State, a system of 30 public colleges, seven universities and 54 campuses, which serves more than 350,000 students every year. However, no one is sure how this fall semester will look for students, staff or even officials. 

Friday was National College Decision Day, when students typically would have committed to their schools. But some schools have extended the deadline to accommodate students whose fall plans were still up in the air.

A toll on schools’ budgets

Colleges and universities of the Minnesota State system still anticipate opening for the fall, but not without some projected losses from COVID-19. Officials are looking at a possible 5 to 20 percent decline in student enrollment amounting to about $79 million total losses systemwide. Minnesota State is looking at an additional loss in revenue of $35 million to $40 million from the last five months. 

Chancellor Devinder Malhotra said there are three plans that Minnesota State is exploring for the next school year: a best-case scenario that would lead to minimal disruption; a more middle-ground case that would require social distancing measures, and a worst-case scenario in which distance learning would continue. 

So far, Minnesota State reports that summer class enrollment has held steady, but they are anticipating declining enrollment for fall semester. Also for international students who pay full in-state tuition for their education, their dwindling numbers may take a large toll on schools’ budgets. 

Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra
Courtesy of Minnesota State

“It is clear that along with uncertainty, we are bracing and expecting increased pressures on colleges and universities,” Malhotra said. “We have to then start preparing ourselves and start planning for that and sort of make sure that we are able to make the necessary adjustments.”

Since the transition into distance learning, Malhotra said that 95 percent of the system’s course offerings have moved online because of the pandemic. Just as with the unknowns that COVID-19 brought, school officials aren’t sure what next school year looks like yet. 

That’s the case for Winona State University, a public four-year school in southeast Minnesota that has about 7,000 enrolled students as of spring semester. 

President Scott Olson said that the school had refunded students about $4.5 million for their room and board because of COVID-19, and expects a $7 million budget shortfall just from COVID-19. However, he remains hopeful for the fall semester that enrollment will remain steady and that the university is looking to day-to-day developments. 

“The attention is going to be trying to balance providing the highest quality learning experience for our students that we possibly can,” Olson said, “while also keeping all of this affordable at a time when we know so many families are in crisis financially.”

Milestones already lost

Yet, the unknowns are what’s fueling seniors' worries now, leaving them wondering if it’s too soon to make any decisions about fall semester. 

“This is a big decision and because I want to make the right choice, I feel like it is too early to make a call now,” Kruse said. “Things are changing quickly and I don’t want to rush a choice I might regret in the future. Hopefully, we will have a clearer idea of what colleges will be doing in the fall soon.”

A teen sitting on a couch with a laptop surrounded by books.
Destiny Gray, 18, of Austin, Minn., studies in her living room. Gray is one of many Minnesota high school seniors who is left wondering about how normal her college experience will be once fall semester comes around. Hanging in the background is Gray's unworn prom dress.
Courtesy of Jana Norman

High school seniors are also grappling with the milestones already lost. 

Destiny Gray, 18, of Austin, Minn., had saved up three months’ worth of paychecks from her part-time job at Games People Play to purchase her dream prom dress: a white lace ballgown that glittered like silver stars near the bottom and hung off the shoulders. 

Instead of getting to wear it on her prom night, it still hangs in the front of her closet unworn and is a constant reminder of what was supposed to be one of the most memorable experiences of her life. It all changed when COVID-19 caused schools to close for the remainder of the year. 

Now, she has bigger things to worry about, like whether the Austin High School senior will still have a normal college experience this fall at Riverland Community College. 

“I think we kind of took advantage of how nice it actually was being together, and we kind of didn’t realize how good it was until it’s gone,” Gray said.

Correction (May 5, 2020): Winona State’s president expects a $7 million budget shortfall just from COVID-19. An earlier version of this story misstated the figure.