'So much unknown' as seniors make college decisions during pandemic

  • Nate Bargar, college and career counselor at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, conducts a one-on-one meeting with a student via a Google Hangout video chat, while working from home.

    Nate Bargar, college and career counselor at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, conducts a one-on-one meeting with a student via a Google Hangout video chat, while working from home. Courtesy of Nate Bargar

Updated 4/20/2020 6:36 AM

Money, the campus environment and whether there even will be a campus environment this fall are weighing into the decision-making process for high school seniors who haven't yet chosen where they're going to college.

Counselors say they are hearing from students concerned about paying for school because the coronavirus pandemic has caused new financial difficulties and from students who fear committing to a school without certainty that they'll be able to attend in-person classes in the fall.


"This year, there's a little higher level of anxiety about making the right choice and about cost, for sure, because things are rapidly changing," said Amy Thompson, president of the Illinois Association for College Admission Counseling and a college and career counselor at York High School in Elmhurst. "The big part is there's so much unknown."

Counselors say students also are struggling if their plans to visit campuses this spring were scrapped when schools sent students home and canceled tours.

"They don't know what the actual campus is like and what it can offer for them and if it's a good fit for them overall," said Jeremiah Wiencek, chairman of the counseling department at Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn.

Wiencek said roughly 325 colleges and universities have moved back their commitment deadline to June 1 instead of May 1, according to Chicago Area Regional Representatives.

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The time could help students consider options. Amy Herbert, college counselor at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, said she's advising students to take their time if schools allot it.

"There's no rush that you have to put on the T-shirt for where you think you're going to go if you're not ready," she said.

One reason students could wait is the desire for a traditional campus experience. That's what most St. Viator students want, Herbert said, but no one knows if colleges will be able to provide typical in-person instruction in the fall.

"The majority don't want to go to campus in the fall if it's not going to be a 'live campus,'" Herbert said.

If this is the hang-up, Herbert advises students to contact admissions representative to ask about deferring enrollment. Each school will handle this differently, she said, but many are providing flexibility because coronavirus-related restrictions are out of students' control.

Counselors such as Nate Bargar at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein say they are trying to be a calming voice amid the anxiety. Bargar said he's careful about his word choice when conducting video meetings with students to avoid adding to the stress.


"The resilience these young people are showing is amazing," he said.

Thompson said she's reminding seniors they are not facing a "black hole from which there is no return," but a variety of good options for continuing education.

"My focus has been just take care of yourself, be healthy, do the best you can in your classes and everything else is going to work out," Thompson said. "It's all going to work out and your top priority right now is just taking care of you and your family."

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