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What High School Students Need to Know About COVID-19

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Advice for High School Students Heading to College During COVID-19

Coronavirus has made this a confusing time to think about going to college. If you're a junior or senior, we know you're wondering: Is it safe to go to college? Should I take a gap year? Will there be a vaccine by the time I enroll?

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 most pressing questions.

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.

Is It Safe to Go to College?

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Colleges are doing what they can to make campus safe: regular testing, mandated mask use, and social distancing, to name a few protocols. But COVID-19 outbreaks are still happening at schools across the country, causing many to cancel face-to-face classes.

The risk level largely depends on location. It varies from very low at some schools to very high at others, making it hard to generalize what students will be up against. The situation can also change quickly, particularly if someone comes to campus after being exposed to the virus somewhere else.

The class of 2021 may be in the clear by the time next fall rolls around: A vaccine or treatment improvements could reduce or even remove the risk of COVID-19. But until then, you may be at risk whenever you're on campus, and you should plan accordingly.

"Students going off to college need to be extra cautious," said Steven Antonoff, an independent educational consultant and former dean of admission at the University of Denver. "They need to be vigilant for their health and safety. Young people are less apt to have severe [novel coronavirus] symptoms but they are clearly at risk."

When Will a Vaccine Be Ready?

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It's the question that's on everybody's minds: When will the coronavirus end?

Researchers are rapidly trying to produce a safe and effective vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. But a vaccine may not be ready for large-scale use until early 2021 or even later.

Additionally, while a vaccine would lower the coronavirus's risk, it may only offer limited immunity. Outbreaks, intermittent lockdowns, and social distancing may continue to affect campuses for months, even after a vaccine.

But Debra Felix, an independent educational consultant and former director of admissions at Columbia University, said there's reason to hope for a better outcome.

"Once a vaccine is approved and becomes available to everyone, schools will require students to be vaccinated before they can come on campus," she said. "Everyone who gets the vaccine will be protected from getting the virus, and no safety precautions will be necessary anymore."

Has COVID-19 Affected Admission Testing Requirements?

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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 fall.

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

Some colleges have adopted test-optional policies, meaning students can choose whether or not to submit test scores. Others won't consider the tests as part of their admission decisions at all. But this varies by school, so be sure to check requirements for your top-choice colleges.

If you do decide to take the SAT, you'll have to do it in person. SAT exam dates are scheduled throughout the year at various testing centers.

While many of these test centers have closed during the pandemic, you can check online to see if there are still any in your area. Those that are open must adhere to local public health guidelines, such as requiring masks, seating students six feet apart, and increasing sanitization. Even so, keep in mind that it's still a risk to be indoors.

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

Similar to the SAT, AP exams are still up in the air. While AP scores aren't typically required on a college application, they are an affordable way to get early college credit, and students can self-report them on applications to help themselves stand out.

But will AP exams be online in 2021, as they were in 2020? That remains to be determined. The current AP exam dates are May 3-7 and May 10-14. To encourage students to still sign up, the College Board — which administers AP exams — is waiving cancellation fees in advance.

Suppose social distancing is still necessary by the time testing dates come due. In that case, schools will have additional options to ensure all students receive testing.

Has the College Experience Changed?

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Coronavirus has changed college life in almost every way. Students must social distance, wear masks, self-report symptoms, avoid mass gatherings, and get tested regularly for COVID-19.

To minimize risks, many classes have moved to a mix of online and face-to-face instruction. Professors are often separated from their students by plexiglass barriers in classrooms, limiting their ability to interact with students. Extracurricular activities have also largely ceased, and breaking these rules might get you booted from school.

The result is that students are often stuck in their dorms without regular social contact. According to Felix, this means students currently at college may be struggling with isolation.

"They aren't allowed to have a roommate and they aren't allowed to have parties or attend large gatherings of any kind," she said. "It must be lonely taking online classes alone in your dorm room and not being able to go to the dining hall to eat with friends."

But there is a silver lining: Students still can go to college, learn, and make new friends. It's just under entirely different circumstances and requires a great deal more caution.

Will Tuition Be Cheaper?

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In many cases, students will have to pay on-campus prices for an increasingly online college education due to COVID-19. While some universities offer discounts or dropped on-campus fees for students studying from home, most can't afford reduced tuition rates. In many cases, institutions report that remote learning and other virus measures make their operations more costly.

The high cost of average college tuition — $21,950 at public schools and $49,870 at private schools — has led many students and their parents to demand cheaper education. Tens of thousands of students have signed petitions and pleas for tuition rebates, reduced fees, and housing refunds in the event of another COVID-19-related campus shutdown.

It's unclear if these efforts will make a difference. Some colleges are already dealing with a budget crisis that has led to furloughs, layoffs, and pay cuts. At the same time, lower enrollment is expected to deepen financial losses.

"Colleges are institutions with lots of expenses," Antonoff said, "and those expenses will mostly continue during the pandemic."

Is Online College a Better Option?

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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.

Will Colleges Extend Application Deadlines?

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In spring, many schools extended their traditional May deadlines for college admissions due to the coronavirus pandemic. That extension gave students extra time to decide whether or not to enroll.

But will that happen again for college-bound students in May 2021? Antonoff doesn't think so.

"It isn't very likely," Antonoff said. "But low-selectivity schools might be even more lenient than they have been in the past."

Felix echoed his sentiments.

"With few exceptions, colleges are not extending their application deadlines, but that could change," she said.

- Debra Felix, Educational Consultant

Will Acceptance Rates Rise Due to COVID-19?

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Coronavirus has made a lot of things harder, but there is one silver lining: You may have a better chance of getting into your dream school than you would have in the past.

Some colleges and universities are urgently trying to reach their enrollment goals for the 2020-21 academic year. Acceptance rates have increased as students cancel or defer their enrollments.

Even highly selective colleges follow this trend: All but two of the Ivy League schools reported an uptick in acceptance rates for the class of 2024. Being taken off the waitlist is also increasingly common. At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, more than 100 additional students were accepted from the waitlist compared to last year.

While he thinks other schools may follow suit, Antonoff said college-bound students should keep in mind that acceptance rates off the waitlist may go back down next year.

"Schools are being careful to keep their eye on the increased number of students who have deferred and will seek admission next year," he said.

Is a College Degree Still Worth It?

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The worth 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?

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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 are deferring this 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.

"Of course, this assumes you can do something meaningful and significant during your gap year. A gap year of twiddling your thumbs and playing video games in your parents' basement is not a great alternative to starting college."

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Questions and Answers with Debra Felix and Steven Antonoff

Debra Felix is an educational consultant at Felix Educational Consulting and former director of admissions at Columbia University in New York. Steven Antonoff is an educational consultant at Antonoff Associates, Inc. and former dean of admissions at the University of Denver in Colorado. They were interviewed separately, but their answers are included together here for ease of reading.

TheBestSchools.org (TBS): Is it safe to go to college right now?

Debra Felix (DF): The risk varies, from very low in some places to very high in others. It is so hard to say what a student will find, and the situation at every college changes every day depending on who comes onto campus that day and if they were exposed to the virus the night before.

The fact that people can have the virus but have no symptoms makes the whole situation especially difficult to assess. The virus is transferred between people interacting with one another, and asking college students not to interact with each other on campus is unrealistic. So, if the virus reaches a campus, it will spread.

Steven Antonoff (SA): Yes, mainly seen through the lens of life as it exists today. Risks exist when we decide where to go and who we interact with, even if we are at home. Colleges are doing everything they can to make their campuses safe. The last thing they want is to have a COVID outbreak.

That said, students going off to college need to be extra cautious; they need to be vigilant for their health and safety. Young people are less apt to have severe COVID symptoms, but they are clearly at risk.

What difference will a vaccine make for higher education?

DF: Once a vaccine is approved and becomes available to everyone, schools will require students to be vaccinated before they can come on campus. Everyone who gets the vaccine will be protected from getting the virus, and no safety precautions will be necessary anymore.

Will colleges extend admission application deadlines?

DF: With few exceptions, colleges are not extending their applicaiton deadlines, but that could change.

SA: It isn't very likely. But low selectivity schools might be even more lenient than they have been in the past.

Is it easier to get into college at this time?

SA: That's the question of the summer/fall. After studying this for the last several weeks and talking to lots of admission deans, I cannot make any predictions. Yes, maybe more will be taken from the waitlist, but schools are being careful to keep their eye on the increased number of students who have deferred and will seek admission next year.

Another wild card is what will happen with international students. Will there be as many as in the past? If not, will schools need to make cutbacks to faculty and/or programs? If that happens, schools will want to have fewer students on campus, not more from the waitlist.

But this is all very speculative. I'm changing my opinion daily as I gather more information.

How has testing for the SAT, the ACT, and AP exams been affected by the pandemic?

DF: It has been much harder for students to take standardized tests this spring and summer, and those difficulties will continue through the fall.

SA: SATs and ACTs are a thing of the past, both for next year and for the near future. AP scores, if available, will still be used by many colleges.

Has the college experience changed since COVID-19?

DF: It has changed dramatically. Colleges are cutting programs, departments, and teams; freezing employees' salaries and hiring; teaching some, most, or all classes online; and suspending building and maintenance work.

Students are finding their extracurricular activities canceled. Some of their friends did not come back to school this year. Some of their professors have quit or are now teaching twice as many students. They aren't allowed to have a roommate and they aren't allowed to have parties or attend large gatherings of any kind. It must be lonely taking online classes alone in your dorm room and not being able to go to the dining hall to eat with friends (no large gatherings).

SA: Yes, practically everything. Both the academic and the social aspects of college life are different this fall. But the ability to learn, and to make friends, is still very much possible.

Is the cost of a traditional degree still worth it?

DF: Well, the alternative is not getting a college degree, so it depends on how much getting a college degree is worth to you.

SA: There is always a question of the worth of a college degree. Is the additional cost of going to a private university double (or more) than going to a public university? It depends on the motivation and the needs of each student.

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. 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.

Will tuition and fees be cheaper due to the pandemic?

DF: Some colleges are not charging room and board for students who are studying online from home or for resources that are closed right now, such as the fitness center and library.

SA: Could be, but I doubt it. Colleges are institutions with lots of expenses, and those expenses will mostly continue during the pandemic.

What are the pros and cons of attending an online school?

SA: Online education can be just as good as on-the-ground or classroom education. Students should ask their parents or others they know who went to college to evaluate their teachers during their college years. My guess is they will say that some teachers were great and others not so good. The same is true of classes taught online.

What's interesting is to know that online learning in 2020-2021 is much different than online learning of five or 10 years ago. There are many new and innovative techniques, and colleges are working hard to employ those techniques to make the online experience an educationally rich one. That makes online learning an interactive, exciting format.

Should students consider taking a gap year?

DF: Yes, students should always consider taking a gap year, COVID or no COVID. Gap years are often life-changing and allow the student to start college with a well-rested brain, a clearer focus on what s/he wants to study and do, more maturity, and more motivation to be in college."

Of course, this assumes you can do something meaningful and significant during your gap year. A gap year of twiddling your thumbs and playing video games in your parents' basement is not a great alternative to starting college.

SA: I always encourage students to consider taking a gap year! I think many students are well served by doing something interesting the year after high school graduation. I find that students who take a gap year are more motivated to be successful in college and more rested and ready to deal with academic life rigor. But don't be too quick to dismiss a traditional college education next year. Things can change very quickly.

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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