What Students Need to Know About COVID-19

by Evan Thompson

Updated August 30, 2022


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Are you ready to discover your college program?

A pandemic is a confusing time to think about going to college.

If you're a junior or senior, we know you're wondering: When will college students receive the COVID-19 vaccine? Is it safe to go to college? Should I take a gap year?

So much has changed in higher education that students should seriously consider their options before making a decision. To help you make the right choice for you, we've tried to answer the pressing questions many students are asking.

Keep in mind that the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 are continually changing. Remember to stay informed on current events and consider how they may impact your college future.

When Will College Students Get the Vaccine?

Everyone 16 and older is now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination.

Phase 1a

  • Health care personnel
  • Long-term care facility residents

Phase 1b

  • Frontline essential workers, including teachers
  • People 75 and older

Phase 1c

  • People ages 65-74
  • People ages 16-64 with high-risk conditions
  • Other essential workers

Phase 2

  • People 16 and older not in Phase 1

What Will Classes Be Like in the Fall?

Illustration of two students practicing social distancing

How colleges and universities will approach learning in the fall of 2021 remains a bit of a mystery. Most reopening plans are tentative, based on coronavirus cases, but many expect that campuses will look a lot like they did before the pandemic.

For example, many colleges and universities in Ohio plan to return to somewhat normalcy this fall. Plans at the Ohio State University, the University of Akron, and Cleveland State University include:

A change of that magnitude would be a far cry from what students dealt with last year, as coronavirus has changed college life in almost every way.

When Will Campus Life Return to Normal?

Vaccinations are the key for campus life to return to normal, but medical experts say "normal" is still a long way off for colleges and universities.

In particular, which vaccine students get will impact campuses. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines both offer up to 95% protection against the virus, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a lower efficacy rate.

Plummeting transmission rates in most parts of the country demonstrate how effective the vaccines have been in preventing infections and limiting the spread of the disease. Still, intermittent lockdowns and social distancing policies may be implemented on campuses on an as-needed basis, even if most students have received a vaccine. Muddying the waters further is the fact that the CDC still doesn't know how long the vaccine will provide immunity.

Dr. Jenna Liphart Rhoads, a medical advisor for NurseTogether.com, said mandatory vaccinations would speed up the process for getting back to life before the pandemic.

"It will make a big difference in helping the college experience return to normal," Liphart Rhoads said. "I would hope that most students will be willing to be vaccinated. However, I feel there will need to be some sort [of incentive] to receive it."

Will My College Require Vaccinations?

Illustration of student wearing mask with coronavirus spores floating around them

Colleges and universities will soon have to make a decision about a controversial question: Should college students be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, institutions in Pennsylvania are undecided on a vaccine policy for students. Instead, many schools are focusing on educating students about the vaccine, encouraging them to get vaccinated, and making vaccinations as accessible possible.

Requiring college students to get vaccinations to prevent other diseases, including Hepatitis B, human papillomavirus, and meningococcal disease, is common.

Debra Felix, an independent educational consultant and former director of admissions at Columbia University, believes that it makes sense for schools to require COVID-19 vaccinations.

"Everyone who gets the vaccine will be protected from getting the virus, and no safety precautions will be necessary anymore," she said.

But even though the vast majority of institutions strongly recommend that their students get vaccinated, not all schools are requiring it. Religious colleges in particular are leaving the decision up to their students: Seattle Pacific University is the the only school in the U.S. members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities to require the vaccine.

Has COVID-19 Affected Standardized Testing?

The coronavirus has made it much harder for students to take standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, and AP tests. These difficulties will likely continue through the spring of 2021, even with a vaccine.

The spring 2021 SAT dates are March 13, May 8, and June 5. But if you do decide to take the SAT, you'll have to do it in person.

The pandemic, cancellations, or capacity reductions may lead to test center closures in your area during testing time windows, so it's important to check with your local test center.

You can also get SAT fees waived if you meet certain qualifications.

Are You Eligible for SAT Fee Waivers?

Fee waivers are available for students in grades 9-12. You're eligible for fee waivers if you say "yes" to any of the following:

  • You're enrolled in or eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
  • Your annual family income falls within the Income Eligibility Guidelines set by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
  • You're enrolled in a federal, state, or local program that aids students from low-income families (e.g., Federal TRIO programs such as Upward Bound).
  • Your family receives public assistance.
  • You live in federally subsidized public housing or a foster home, or are homeless.
  • You are a ward of the state or an orphan.

Source: College Board

Exam dates for the ACT are also open for registration; you can take the test online or in person.

Have Colleges Changed Admission Testing Requirements?

Illustration of student holding a laptop and papers in a folder

The College Board — a nonprofit organization that manages and administers standardized tests — has asked colleges and universities to extend deadlines for receiving test scores and fairly consider students for admission who couldn't take the test due to COVID-19.

Before COVID-19, SAT and ACT test scores played a role in admission requirements for most schools. Now, with the virus limiting or even eliminating access to testing, many colleges have announced that they'll no longer require admission exams for applicants, at least for now.

Some colleges have adopted test-optional policies instead, meaning students can choose whether or not to submit test scores. Others won't consider the tests as part of the admission process at all. Because this varies by school, it's best to check requirements for your top-choice colleges.

Will COVID-19 Make It Easier to Get Into College?

Illustration of student having a frustrated thought

The coronavirus made it easier for students to get into some schools in 2020. Across the country, college acceptance rates went up in anticipation of enrollment decline. Even highly selective colleges, including several Ivy League schools, admitted more students than usual.

But will COVID-19 make it easier to get into college for the 2021-22 academic year? Not necessarily.

At the most elite schools, fall 2021 admission may get even tougher. Several colleges and universities saw significant increases in applications after relaxing admission requirements in response to testing disruptions for the SAT and ACT. More applications could mean more competition for getting into highly-selective schools.

According to Debra Felix, an independent educational consultant and former director of admissions at Columbia University, acceptance rates are unlikely to increase for schools that admit 30% or fewer applicants, such as Northwestern University, Davidson College, and Stanford University, but schools with more standard acceptance rates may see an uptick in admissions.

"I do not expect much to change at the colleges with the lowest admission rates," Felix said. "If an enrollment decline persists at the other schools, they might admit a larger freshman class in the next cycle."

Will Tuition Be Cheaper in Fall 2021?

A number of schools have announced their intention to cut tuition in fall 2021. Southern New Hampshire University plans to reduce tuition by 50% next fall. Meanwhile, Rider University and Fairleigh Dickinson University will slash prices by between 22%-25%.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, students and parents have argued that college costs are too high for remote learning. Enrollment has dropped as a result, putting pressure on colleges to address losses in tuition revenue.

However, most schools can't afford to reduce tuition rates. Some colleges are already dealing with a budget crisis that has led to furloughs, layoffs, and pay cuts, and many colleges depend on tuition revenue to stay operational.

"Colleges are institutions with lots of expenses," said Steven Antonoff, an independent educational consultant and former dean of admission at the University of Denver. "Those expenses will mostly continue during the pandemic."

Is Online College a Better Option?

Illustration of a laptop showing an online meeting with many students' faces

For many students, online college may be a safer route to higher education during a pandemic. An online degree holds just as much weight as a traditional degree, and concerns about credibility are mostly unfounded, so long as you attend an accredited school. Online education can also mean reduced costs, greater accessibility, and more flexible schedules.

But online learning isn't for everyone. The format — watching videos, communicating with professors through message boards, attending Zoom lectures — creates a different classroom experience. It also requires more self-motivation and time-management skills, because you spend more time completing assignments on your own.

Whether or not an online college is a better option depends on your personal preferences. You'll need to evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses to decide which education style best suits you.

Is a College Degree Still Worth It?

The value of a college degree is often highly personal and can vary with your career goals. Ultimately, its value comes down to each student's needs, but a few factors still make it worth it for most people, despite COVID-19.

College graduates with a bachelor's degree tend to have more job security than those with only a high school diploma, which is true even during a pandemic. According to an analysis from Pew Research Center, less-educated workers aged 25 and older saw higher unemployment during the initial surge of COVID-19 between February and May.

Additionally, the high cost of a bachelor's degree is typically offset by higher earning potential. The median weekly salary for workers with bachelor's degrees was $1,281 in 2019, compared to $749 for high school graduates. Many in-demand jobs also require a bachelor's degree or higher, including nursing, computer science, and psychology.

"At this COVID period, students and parents have an obligation to ask college administrators questions about the worth and value of a degree from their school," Antonoff said. "Calling the dean of students or provost or president and asking direct questions is an obligation of every family. With their answers, you decide if it is worth it."

Should You Take a Gap Year?

Illustration of student standing next to oversized hourglass

Many college-bound students are choosing to take a gap year instead of attending classes forced online by COVID-19. According to the Boston Globe, 20% of first-year students at Harvard College, 8% of first-year students at MIT, and 10% of students at Bates College deferred admission for the 2020-21 academic year.

A gap year comes with both pros and cons. Students typically use gap years to volunteer, gain work experience, or travel. But these aren't normal times, and gap year opportunities are limited due to COVID-19. Travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders may sway students away from deferring.

But while a normal gap year may not be possible, that doesn't mean you can't make it worthwhile. Many online programs connect students with peers from around the world. You could choose to learn a new skill set with an independent study, which gives you the freedom to pursue whatever you want.

"Students should always consider taking a gap year, COVID or no COVID," Felix said. "Gap years are often life-changing and allow the student to start college with a well-rested brain, more maturity, and more motivation to be in college.

Portrait of Evan Thompson

Evan Thompson

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Header Image Credit: Nadia Bormatova | Getty Images

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