Mariah Barrera is worried about keeping a promise she made to herself in seventh grade — she would be the first in her family to graduate college, at no cost to her parents.
As one of seven children growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., Barrera, 17, understood early on that she would have to navigate and pay for her future on her own. Barrera wanted to set an example for her younger sisters, so she reminded herself of her promise over the years when things got tough: in particular, the two years of high school when her family experienced housing insecurity so severe that six of them had to live in a single-room basement together.
But Barrera continued to study. An aspiring filmmaker, she was accepted into a fully funded summer film program in New York City before her senior year. At the same time, her family finally moved into a house. In her final film project, “Metamorphosis,” Barrera characterized their move out of the basement like a butterfly leaving its cocoon. Barrera, too, was leaving her cocoon — she felt at home that summer in the city of bright lights and big aspirations. She set her sights on Columbia University or New York University.
Fast-forward past a senior fall of navigating college applications and scholarships. On March 26, Barrera called her entire family back into one room, their living room. It was “Ivy Day,” when many of the Ivy League colleges send out college decisions. Barrera had been counting down all week.
When she logged into the admissions portal on her computer, Columbia’s fight song started playing. Barrera began sobbing. She got in — and was awarded a full ride scholarship.
But just one month later, New York is the epicenter of a pandemic, with more covid-19 cases than any country besides the United States. Now, to Barrera, Columbia doesn’t seem so much like a dream. She had seen how much difficulty college students — particularly low-income, first-generation college students like herself — faced after colleges and universities closed suddenly because of the pandemic. She worries about being so far away from her family; she is beginning to think that DePaul University in Chicago, a three-hour car ride from her home, would be a better option.
With one week to make her decision before the May 1 deadline to commit (some colleges, but not Columbia, have pushed the deadline to June 1), Barrera feels incredibly uncertain. This wasn’t part of the plan.
As colleges and universities try to prepare for what fall 2020 could look like, millions of high school seniors like Barrera must plan for an unknown future while already bearing the physical, emotional and financial effects of the pandemic. A recent survey by the Art & Science Group, a higher-education consulting firm, found that the majority of high school seniors are worried about their ability to attend their first-choice college because of the pandemic, largely because of their families’ financial situations. Some students cited their inability to spend an overnight at the college or health concerns as reasons for their reconsideration.
Moreover, one in six high school seniors are at the point of forgoing college entirely this fall, according to the survey. The pandemic has emphasized the country’s health and socioeconomic disparities, and the choices facing these students promise only to further amplify the inequities in higher education. Just last week, the Education Department released $6 billion in emergency relief money for college students in need of financial aid — but it excluded the tens of thousands of students known as Dreamers, those brought to the country illegally as children and protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“This is so completely abnormal, we really have no guidance for how to think about it,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, the author of “How to Raise an Adult” and a former dean of freshman and undergraduate advising at Stanford University, of the pandemic’s effects on college-bound high school seniors.
Ella Whitaker has been spending a lot of time looking at blurry images of colleges on her computer screen. Whitaker, 17, lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, so she wasn’t able to visit many of the East Coast schools she was accepted to in person. She has been finding creative ways to understand the “vibe” of campuses: Google Street View, Craigslist posts, Reddit threads, weather forecasts and phone calls with far-removed connections like her sister’s boyfriend’s friend. Having lost her job as a math tutor because of the pandemic, Whitaker has been more seriously researching the career services that each institution offers, worried about her job prospects four years from now.
But no matter how much research she obsessively plugs into spreadsheets, Whitaker isn’t sure she wants to attend what was once her top-choice school — Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y. “A hundred percent of my friends are going to University of California Los Angeles,” Whitaker says.
On the other side of the country in Newton, Mass., Dina Gorelik, 18, is also concerned about leaving home. “I was so intent on leaving the Boston area and now my perspective has done a 180,” Gorelik says. For Gorelik, the adventure of attending McGill University in Montreal now pales in comparison to the security of Brandeis University, just 10 minutes from her home.
Kayleigh Duggan, 17, meanwhile, is as eager as ever to leave Bath, Maine. “I’ve always wanted to get away from home,” says Duggan. She’s in the car with her mom, who protests upon hearing that. The first in her family to go to college, Duggan was accepted early decision to Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and its summer transition program for students whose financial or academic backgrounds would make them otherwise unable to attend the college.
But the program may now be moved online or canceled. “I don’t know how far behind I will be [when I get to campus] — if I’m far behind,” Duggan says. “It’s a little scary.”
The prospect of remote learning, whether this summer or in the fall of 2020, is troublesome for Duggan. Her mom works nights, leaving Duggan to care for her siblings during the day, a responsibility she’s already juggling while finishing the last months of high school remotely.
Reggie Jean, the director of Upward Bound at Boston University, a federally funded college access program, says the students he advises would face similar struggles of balancing schoolwork with caretaking, work or connectivity issues if colleges are remote in the fall. Many of these students live in the Boston neighborhoods most impacted by covid-19 and already worry about being unable to find a summer job to help pay for college costs.
“Taking classes online or deferring for a year may have long-term consequences for a student being able to graduate,” says Jean, noting how crucial freshman year is to a student’s success. While many students are considering gap years, Jean says that the students he advises may become caretakers for younger siblings or elderly family members during that year off — transitioning back to academics would perhaps be too challenging for them and their families.
As the fate of in-person classes in the fall remains up in the air, students still have to decide within the coming weeks where they want that unknown future to be. The decision is a lot scarier and lonelier in quarantine, says Whitaker. “I know there are no wrong choices,” she says. “It’s not more difficult to choose — it’s more difficult to have to choose right now.”
The adults in the room have no answers. “We are in a time of tremendous uncertainty, and nobody has the right answer right now about what we should do today to plan for the fall,” Lythcott-Haims says. “This strange time we’re in might accelerate the process of [teenagers’] becoming more adultlike and independent.”
With one week left, Whitaker and Gorelik are still deciding. Barrera can’t make a decision until she hears back from one last scholarship — if she gets it, she could seriously consider going to DePaul; if not, she will go to Columbia. No matter how much she wants to stay close to home, finances will determine it all for Barrera.
The uncertainty is getting to her. She’s been trying to do one productive thing a day — reading, decluttering her room, making short films — to distract herself from worrying about college. “I think that I am ready, but the last few weeks with everything going on, I’ve been psyching myself out,” she says.
On Monday, Barrera hears back from the scholarship. She didn’t get it. Still, she is happy. She has made a decision — Columbia. The dream will have to face reality.