Coronavirus schooling: As National College Decision Day nears, uncertainty for both graduates and universities

For many high school seniors awaiting graduation, May 1 – National College Decision Day – is supposed to be a day of celebration and relief.

A day where they can show off their college apparel loud and proud by posting it all over social media. But more importantly, it’s a day to look at the new and exciting possibilities as they move forward in the next chapter of their lives.

But like most major milestones in the past month, the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed that excitement into uncertainty.

For the millions of students who will enroll in undergraduate university this coming year, the coronavirus has not only made the decision about which school they want to attend more difficult but whether they even want to risk attending at all.

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Madigan Mourning, a high school senior from Savannah, Ga., had finances on the top of her mind when she chose to attend the University of Tampa over North Carolina State University.

Now, even after making her decision Mourning and her family are unsure of what the plan is when classes are scheduled to begin in the fall.

“We have heard absolutely zero [from the university]— nothing,” her mother, Katie Mourning, told Fox News.

While a significant number of schools have announced that they have pushed the initial deposit deadline to June 1 or later, a majority of schools are keeping their deadline on May 1. Once students put their deposit down they are locked to the school through their first semester.

Even if the university opens up in the fall, there is still concern that if COVID-19 continues to persist, parents might not feel comfortable with their kids attending.

“To be honest, I hate for her to have to do online classes. But at the same time, there's a threat to our health or safety. I don't want her on campus,” Katie Mourning said.

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Jennifer Johnson, from Reisterstown, Md., has twin daughters planning to attend nearby Stevenson University in the fall.

While she says that the university has met their expectations in terms of financial aid and communication, they still don’t know the university’s plan of action heading into the new school year.

She and her husband are hesitant to send their children without a certain amount of certainty involving health safety and a potential vaccine.

“How do you put all these kids on a campus together and then not have a vaccine, but not say, ‘oh, you can't go to parties. You can't live in a dorm together?’” Johnson told Fox News. “You know, how do you do that without a vaccine? And it takes one person, as you know, to spread like wildfire.”

This raises the issue of in-person classes for the fall.

Since the pandemic began, universities across the country moved to online learning, allowing students to complete the academic year.

However, the move has triggered arguments from current students, who say they shouldn’t have to pay the tuition without a significant discount because they are not on campus.

In April, students attending Miami and Drexel universities filed class-action lawsuits demanding refunds due to the forced online learning.

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The financial implications of the pandemic that families are feeling is also becoming an increasing factor in families’ decisions about higher education.

More than 30 million people in the U.S. have filed for unemployment in the last six weeks – levels that have not been seen since the recession in 2008.

Johnson said she and her husband are both currently without work due to the virus and are increasingly concerned about the cost of sending two children to a private university.

“You see the 529 statement in front of us and we see that it's gone down. And it's scary," she said. “We are about to send your kids off to school and you, see the money just going down and everyone's scared. I almost feel like you don't want to look at it.”

It’s not just families who are scared about the financial impact of the virus.

University administrators and experts said there is an increased concern that institutions may not be able to meet their financial expectations to remain open.

Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), pointed to Moody's Investors Service downgrading higher education from neutral to negative as a sign that universities will be having a very difficult year.

“It reflects the fact that most schools are not an Ivy League school, do not have significant endowments, and are facing some of the same cash shortages that other small businesses and families themselves are facing,” Draeger told Fox News. “And we are concerned about the strain that all schools will be facing this next year.”

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Additionally, there is also concern about whether states will have enough revenue to fund public colleges and universities amid reports of increasingly large deficits amid the pandemic.

Sara Harberson, a former college administrator and an online college counselor, told Fox News that the possibility of a lack of funds may be a significant reason behind colleges' unwillingness to reveal their plans for the coming semester. The threat of failing to meet their enrollment could have significant repercussions for the long-term health of the institution, she said.

“If they delay the start or they keep campus completely closed with no teaching going on in the fall semester, most colleges wouldn't be able to survive financially,” Harberson told Fox News. “So even those virtual classes are not going to be able to deliver them the tuition and the dining and all the extra expenses that a student would have to pay if they were on campus. At least they're bringing in some tuition dollars.”

In spite of what happens in the fall, the coronavirus pandemic is already being etched into the minds of graduating seniors, whose final milestones in high school have been canceled and there are no guarantees.

“A lot of people aren't talking enough about how hard it is to be a senior,” Madigan Mourning said. “Going through this time, because there was a lot of stuff that we're missing out on. I mean, my last soccer game, graduation, prom all of those things are things that I was really, really looking forward to. And I think that it's really difficult and a lot of people aren't talking about it as much from the student's perspective."