The COVID-19 pandemic has been an enormous damper for teens who have seen the typical milestone events of high school, such as prom, end-of-year banquets, final goodbyes and graduations, canceled.
But there’s another thing that’s stretching their disappointment to new limits: the possibility of being unable to attend the college of their choice come fall.
“I think a lot of seniors are sad about the prospect of not having an actual graduation,” said Kaya Heimowitz, a student at La Pietra, a small private school for girls in Honolulu. “For me … it’s more important to be able to go to college in the fall because that’s what I’ve been working really hard for for the last four years.”
Many colleges and universities may continue the remote learning they pivoted to this spring or consider a hybrid model by the start of the next academic year. Some are even delaying opening up campus until 2021. Many schools have pushed back their acceptance deadlines from May 1 to June 1 to give students more time to weigh their options given families’ changed financial positions due to the economic downturn.
For the thousands of students in Hawaii who head off to the mainland for college each year, a time that would ordinarily be marked by eager acceptance decisions and preparations for a new chapter away from home has been replaced by anxious waiting, uncertainty and serious contemplation of other options, like a gap year or in-state education.
Heimowitz was accepted into four universities, including one of her top choices, American University in Washington, D.C., and the University of Puget Sound in Washington state.
But given the very real possibility colleges could only offer virtual classes, the La Pietra senior, who wants to major in international relations, is looking a little closer to home, to the University of Hawaii Manoa, where she could attend mostly for free from scholarship offers and tuition support.
“I certainly want her to go where she wants to go and have that college experience, but the uncertainty of that world now is if that’s actually going to happen,” said her father, Josh Heimowitz, senior managing director for external relations for TFA Hawaii.
“My perspective is that if she’s living between here and her mom’s and taking classes online like they’re doing now, I’m not sure at any of those schools the experience would be significantly better than UH.”
For some Hawaii teens born and raised on the islands, going to college on the mainland is something they’ve looked forward to since they were young, even if that meant going away for school but coming back one day to live and work in Hawaii.
Daniella White, a senior at Campbell High born and raised in Ewa Beach, plans to major in communications with a minor in journalism. She knew ever since sixth grade she wanted to pursue a field of study involving reading and writing and had set her sights on schools in big cities, including those on the East Coast, to help foster this path.
She’s currently deciding between two schools: Emerson College in Boston and Seattle University, but knows she must carefully weigh the financial considerations of enrolling in an out-of-state school if it means not being able to physically be in class with others.
“It’s a big worry, to spend $50,000 on online classes in another state that you won’t even be in,” said White, 17, who serves as the student representative for the Hawaii Board of Education. “To attend a school you’re only attending in your bedroom, in the middle of the ocean, it’s questionable to me.”
About one-third of Hawaii’s 10,000-plus graduating public school seniors attend college on the mainland while two-thirds attend a UH school or other private college in Hawaii, according to 2019 data shared by Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education.
Last year, 2,178 students among roughly 5,963 college-goers within the Department of Education attended a mainland college or university. The western U.S. states, including California, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona, and the Pacific Northwest region, are the most popular destinations.
“For students in Hawaii, attending college out of state is a much larger leap than it is for students on the continent because there is no driving home for the weekend,” noted Farris James, college and career counselor for Assets School, a small private school on Oahu where roughly half of graduating seniors attend college out of state.
That, for some Hawaii seniors, is precisely the appeal.
Rachel Orlowski, a senior at Punahou who was born and raised in Ewa Beach, plans to study English and neuroscience at Dartmouth College, whose campus she was able to visit over spring break last year.
“It’s beautiful. It was 18 degrees when we were there, and windy,” she recalled.
“It’s almost literally in the middle of nowhere,” she added, of the Ivy League campus in New Hampshire. “That’s not what I thought I wanted, I thought I wanted to be in the city but the more and more I looked into it, I find it even more appealing.
“The calmness of it was very alluring.”
Now, given the coronavirus impacts, Orlowski, 17, is not sure what her immediate college-going plans hold nor those of her fellow graduating class of 422 at Punahou.
“I think there are doubts about (whether) college will even start this fall, what does college even mean at this point?” she said. “Will college even be held on campus or be online? If they are going to be online, a lot of us will take a gap year,” she said.
The University of Hawaii has decided to extend its application deadline from May 1 to August 1 to give students who might not have contemplated the school another look given the pandemic.
The statewide university system — whose first summer session will be all online — is preparing for every contingency come fall, “but the assumption is that there will be more online offerings along with in-person classes with added precautions like social distancing and use of cloth masks,” said UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.
He said no decisions have been made about the fall semester.
Some mainland institutions, even those historically popular with Hawaii residents, are seeing a much slower response rate among acceptances.
Oregon State University, whose current Hawaii contingent of 379 represents the third-largest group of out-of-state students, has decided to push back its acceptance deadline from May 1 to June 1.
As of April 8, the school had sent out 408 offers to Hawaii-based students. Only 33 have made deposits, and this before the COVID-19 pandemic set in, according to Blake Vawter, Hawaii admissions advisor. That’s about half as many students who secured a spot at around the same time last year, based on 394 total offers.
“We were also earlier in our financial aid awards last cycle so family decisions may have been made earlier in the cycle,” Vawter said. “We also suspect that our extension of the decision deadline to June 1 is slowing down decisions.”
Even if campuses do resume a normal course of operations for next academic year, the possibility of a new wave of the coronavirus is unsettling to Hawaii teens, given the hardships they’d seen college-age friends experience as they tried to catch flights and return home to the islands last month.
“You might have to take two planes, or a bus from school to the airport,” points out Orlowski. “For all of us heading to college next year, we really have to weigh our decisions and make sure we look out for our own health.”
“I would hope and trust that a lot of these institutions wouldn’t be opening themselves if they knew some of the student body is at risk,” she added.
“There is no easy choice at the end of the day,” Orlowski said. “That’s something we have to face: regardless of what you choose, you may have to lose something.
“That’s a tough pill to swallow.”
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