Hassan Abdi, 19, has a big decision in front of him.
The senior at Chicago’s Sullivan High School in Rogers Park is choosing between New York University or the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for college next fall.
It’s a hard choice for any senior but especially so for Hassan, who will be the first in his family of 13 children to go to college. With the COVID-19 pandemic spreading, his parents aren’t working now. He had been leaning toward NYU, but now he can’t visit. He’s concerned about feeling welcome on campus as a devout Muslim and wanted to be able to be able to see how the campus felt.
As Hassan and thousands of first-generation college students just like him weigh their college options, WBEZ checked in with counselors, students, parents and experts to get advice and guidance on how to navigate these unprecedented times.
Tips for students
Try appealing financial aid awards
Students filled out the federal financial aid application known as FAFSA last fall, but their family’s financial situations may have drastically changed over the past few weeks. If their financial aid award letters are no longer enough, counselors and students recommend going back to ask for more. Some universities are trying to relieve immediate financial pressures for students by waiving enrollment fees.
Chicago senior Karen Rodriguez said neither of her parents are working right now due to the pandemic.
“Our income is a lot lower than what colleges were seeing,” said Karen, who attends Mansueto High School, a Noble charter school. She’s even considering applying for jobs to bring in needed income.
Kameshia Ward, a college counselor at Hansberry College Prep, another Noble charter school, says she’s worried the financial burden of college will become too much for families. “College doesn’t become the priority in the same sense as feeding the family is,” she said. She said no reduction of cost is too small to assist families.
Reconsider close-to-home options
“My goal was to get out of Illinois,” said Kendra Hill, a senior at Hansberry. Now, she’s looking at her acceptance letter to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign through a new lens. “I’m trying to take precautions and staying as close as I can to my family. That is a school I’m now considering.”
Micheal Wiley, a senior at Catalyst Maria in Chicago, is working with his adviser at a group called OneGoal to choose between three schools in the Midwest. His first choice is in Michigan, but if the fall semester continues remotely he’s not sure how he would handle that. “If I choose a school close to home at least I kind of know the area and I’m still getting that college experience,” he said.
Many nonprofits that work directly with first generation or low-income students in Chicago, like Chicago Scholars and OneGoal, are working around the clock fielding questions and concerns from families
At least one local school, DePaul University, said it will continue to accept applications for area students who now want to stay closer to home. The concern about going far away for college may be a silver lining for public universities in Illinois. This could help boost enrollment locally at a time when the state struggles to convince students to remain here for college.
Look at how schools are responding to the coronavirus crisis
College freshmen are telling high school friends if they’re still choosing between schools to look at how they are helping current faculty and students.
“What support they may be giving in terms of housing accommodations for students,” Loyola freshman Molly Sheehan said. “Maybe they’re providing storage spaces for students who live far away.” She also said to look at how they’re notifying students of changes and whether they are good communicators.
Nikki Desgrosellier, a college counselor at Mansueto High School, said she’s noticed some schools are being less supportive of current and prospective students.
“Generally those are more selective schools that know they’re going to have a strong freshman class with a May 1 deadline and don’t really need to accommodate students who are struggling right now,” she said.
Locally, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, the two most selective schools in the Chicago area, have made no changes to their admissions deadlines.
Others, like DePaul University and University of Illinois at Chicago, have pushed back the standard May 1 deadline to June 1. Many schools are scrambling to organize virtual campus tours for students and offering Zoom video conferences with professors and current students so seniors can ask questions.
Keep an eye on high school juniors
College adviser Kameshia Ward is also worried about how high school juniors are going to be impacted by this pandemic.
“I don’t know what my junior [class’] college profile is going to look like because they haven’t been in school for almost a semester,” she said. “I’m really concerned how this is going to impact opportunities they have exposure to next year.”
The College Board, which administers the SAT, already has canceled the April exam that was to be given to all Illinois public high school juniors. The state is working with the College Board to move the test to the fall.
Many colleges across the country are temporarily making it optional for students to include standardized test scores in their applications for fall 2021. In Illinois, many public and private universities already have made it optional to include an SAT score. As this pandemic continues, we’ll likely see more adjustments to accommodate future years.
Tips for colleges
Reach out to students individually
“There’s nothing more important that we can do right now than to retain the first generation, low-income students on your campus by doing that high touch check-in and support,” said Bridgette Davis, who has studied college access as a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago.
She said first-generation students are normally at higher risk of not making it to college in the fall after being accepted. She said schools have a unique opportunity to really support them by making “sure they’ve dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s bureaucratically and mak[ing] sure they feel set up and confident and connected to the college already.”
“This is an opportunity to not throw up our hands, but really innovate and spend the personal time to make some solutions happen, too.”
Davis said some students might be tempted to enroll in online-only universities, but she said they might not have the same resources and provide the same college experience as a traditional university. She said in this time, schools need to do everything they can to explain their value to students as they’re deciding where to attend.
Don’t assume students are putting college plans on hold
Davis says it’s a mistake to think first-generation college students will put off their college dreams.
“A lot of low-income families, especially in the city of Chicago, are worried about basic needs almost every day,’ Davis said. “[But] they still have deep aspirations for their children for the future and are still trying to make college work.”
Plus, economic recessions usually result in higher college enrollments.
“Increased uncertainty [in the past] actually pushed students to college because it’s a place they could get resources and … work on their future,” she said.
Senior Hassan Abdi doesn’t want this pandemic to derail the goals he’s set for himself. He wants to become a cardiothoracic surgeon one day.
“Even though tough times are happening, I’m still the same student,” he said. “I’ll just keep going with each day.”
But spending so much time with his family over the past few weeks has led him to lean toward attending U of I so he can remain close to his 12 siblings and be a role model as the first in the family to attend college.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Kameshia Ward’s first name.