KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As the start of school creeps closer, college-aged students have a tough choice to make. Will they attend a four-year university, community college, technical school or will they take a year off?
How does COVID-19 play into their decision?
For many students, this potentially life-altering choice must happen by mid-July.
In May, Tennessee schools saw about a 40 percent decrease in fall enrollment compared to last year, according to a spokesperson for tnAchieves.
"We are down in overall enrollment be we are starting to see that turn a little bit, which we are very grateful for. We know there is anxiety," Dr. Chris Whaley, president of Roane State of Community College, said.
In July, Tennessee schools saw about an 18 percent decrease.
"We are hearing from students that they want to go, they just need to know what their exact next step is," Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director of tnAchieves, said.
There are a lot of pieces that go into this choice.
One big factor in choosing an education path is the cost. When the last school year was cut short, the number of new college freshmen applying for federal financial aid dropped.
Experts say that was fueled in part by students at low-income schools who were cut off from counselors as their families experienced financial setbacks.
"First generation, lower-income students, students of color, they need another layer of support that is a next level from their peers. So ensuring they are receiving that in a consistent way but also again meets them where they are in this process is critical during this time," DeAlejandro said.
Another major factor in this decision is what school could look like during the pandemic. Will classes be online, in-person or both? Could there be travel restrictions between your home and school?
"I think students are just waiting for some communication to see what schools are doing," DeAlejandro said.
As students choose their next steps, they're looking at three big options.
1. One option is attending a four-year university.
"Before COVID, I was going to go play beach volleyball at Morehead State University," incoming freshman Maya Alves said. "But I decided I'm going to go to UT and be a regular student and not an athlete."
"I hope to in the fall head up to Ithaca College in Ithaca New York to study documentary studies and production," incoming freshman Guadi Fanelli said.
Due to the pandemic, some students are now choosing a different university, but even those continuing with their original plans know the year won't look normal.
"We will be having a mix of online school and on-campus school. I'm really hoping that when that time comes around we will all be in school and starting the college experience," Fanelli said.
"It's definitely not the ideal college experience as some people would say," Alves said. "But we did online school for high school toward the end and I enjoyed it."
In Tennessee, UT, Carson-Newman University, ETSU and Jonhson University are all making changes. Those include some online learning, changes to school breaks and new policies on campus.
Organizations helping students earn degrees say students should focus on school despite the uncertainty of the pandemic.
"I understand that it is scary and all the swirl and chaos that's happening in the world. Find that stability in earning a college degree," DeAlejandro said. "Statistically speaking, if you do not start in the fall directly following high school graduation, you actually never start because life starts."
"I think it's best not to think about the freshman experience that you may be missing or may be different," Alves said. "Just focus on academics as much as you can, and just remember you are going to school to get a degree at the end."
2. The next option students are considering is community college.
"We will be offering courses that are both entirely online and some that are on ground, and of course, those that are on ground will be following the Tennessee Pledge and following CDC guidelines," Whaley said.
As the pandemic continues, community colleges say they're seeing more students utilize online courses. Enrollment at Roane State Community College is actually up for online courses but down overall.
One big question for students: If I choose a community college, can I transfer once the pandemic clams down? The answer is yes.
"Particularly when it comes to transferring within the state of Tennessee from a T.B.R. community college, which is all 13 in the state, to any of our Tennessee universities, we have Tennessee transfer pathways which is designed to make sure students don't lose any credit," Whaley said.
3. The third popular choice we're seeing from students is the gap year.
"Something I really do hope to gain is independence and confidence in myself and the real world," recent high school graduate Alexandra Acevedo said. "College is the first time I will really be on my own, and I am hoping my gap year will really prepare me for that by giving me experiences."
Numbers show more students are thinking about a gap year.
"When COVID-19 hit, everything with having to be quarantined came up and schools began to change plans with having to wear masks and deprived me of the true college experience we decided to go forward with the gap year," Acevedo said.
The Gap Year Association said its website traffic went up 300 percent when the pandemic hit, attracting students who want a variety of experiences.
"One is some amount of service and volunteering. Another thing is some amount of career exploration or internship. A third thing is around paid work understanding a good summer of paid work can set up off on a great gap year so it's highly affordable," said Ethan Knight, executive director of The Gap Year Association. "The last piece is a bit of a free radical suggesting that you shouldn't over-structure the time to give a little bit of space for great opportunities to come up."
Statistics show students who don't start college in the fall after high school are significantly less likely to earn a degree.
"However, one of the advantages of a good gap year, something that is intentional and purposeful, those students translate to 90 percent back into college within a year of completing their time," Knight said.
"Don't be afraid of taking a gap year," Acevedo said. "lf you are going to go for a gap year, go all in and enjoy it."
No matter which option a student chooses, experts, administrators and students agree, try to focus on the positive and remember you're not alone.
"Use the time you have to think and reflect and pray and use your resources to get information and follow your heart no matter what," Alves said.
"At some point, this will get better. This is just for now, Fanelli said.
"I think there is nothing braver than asking for help. I would say to any young person who says 'I don't know if I am college material' or 'I don't know if this is the right time' make that next step and ask for help," DeAlejandro said.
If you're a student looking to make your decision for this fall, below is a list of resources that may help guide you in the right direction.
TN Achieves: www.tnachieves.org
Gap Year Association: www.gapyearassociation.org
College Board: www.collegeboard.org