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Coronavirus upends college decision process for Chicago high school students

As deadlines approaches to choose a school, seniors are facing an increasingly difficult decision.

John Hancock College Prep senior Marlenne Garcia poses Friday near her McKinley Park home.
John Hancock College Prep senior Marlenne Garcia poses Friday near her McKinley Park home.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

Picking a college has always been a nerve-wracking experience — especially as deadlines approach for new students to enroll to get a spot in the fall.

But with campuses closed, college fairs canceled and students cut off from their teachers and counselors during an unprecedented shutdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, students have found their decision process increasingly difficult, especially as the economy falters. Meanwhile, the organizations and institutions supporting them are having to find new ways of helping seniors stay on track.

Aryam Jaimes, an 18-year-old senior at Solorio Academy High School in Gage Park, was looking forward to visiting two colleges in California last month but shelved the trip when the University of San Diego announced it was shutting down.

“I was really disappointed,” Jaimes said. “I was planning to use [the visits] to help make my choice.”

Aryam Jaimes, a senior at Solorio Academy High School in Gage Park.
Aryam Jaimes, a senior at Solorio Academy High School in Gage Park.
Provided

Virtual visits a mixed bag

Colleges and universities around the state are trying to improve online tours and communication with prospective students, said Patrick Walsh, a past president of the Illinois Association for College Admission Counseling.

“We’re trying to find ways, meeting via Zoom, doing outreach, providing presentations,” he said. “I think it’s really across the board.”

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, recently announced a revamped virtual tour experience, which includes student testimonials, vlog posts and a link to speak with an admissions counselor. It came after the school earlier recently suspended indefinitely all of its admitted-student receptions, honors dinners and campus visits.

But Jaimes said the digital outreach from the California schools was a mixed bag. A virtual tour of one of the schools was “mostly just a tour of the buildings, but what I wanted out of the trip was what it would feel like to go there,” she said.

Talking to a student-athlete at another school, using a video messaging app “was really great. She was able to answer my questions,” Jaimes said.

College fairs shut down, too

College fairs — traditionally where juniors as well as younger students get information about a variety of schools — have also been disrupted. Noble Network of Charter Schools had to cancel its largest college fair, which was scheduled for last month, said Aidé Acosta, who oversees college planning for Noble.

“As we move forward, we recognize that our traditional approach is not the direction we’re going to follow right now because we’re not under normal circumstances,” Acosta said.

Walsh said his association is helping put on a virtual college exploration week geared toward juniors who have seen college fairs canceled due to social distancing. The free event is scheduled for April 20-23 at www.strivescan.com/virtual.

Marlenne Garcia does school work Friday on the steps of her McKinley Park home.
Marlenne Garcia works on some school work Friday on the steps of her McKinley Park home.
Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

Parents missing out, too

Marlenne Garcia, an 18-year-old who attends Hancock College Prep, said she hoped to bring her parents on college tours this year to make them feel more comfortable about her eventual choice.

“I wanted them to see [the campuses] so they could feel better about me leaving home,” said Garcia, of McKinley Park.

Garcia, who would be the first in her family to attend college, said she has received invaluable help from Bottom Line, a nonprofit counseling service available to first-generation college applicants and low-income students.

“It’s a critical time for seniors right now,” said Martha Khanna, managing director of development at Bottom Line. She said her organization has continued working closely with students and their families since college counseling offices at schools have closed down.

Since some students the group works with don’t have computers or Wifi at home, her group is helping them find resources they had access to at schools and libraries.

Financial considerations could alter college choices

Where the students go to school could be impacted by the economic slowdown caused by the outbreak, especially those with parents who have lost jobs or have less work with so many businesses closed.

Acosta said some seniors at the charter network’s 17 high schools — the majority of whom are low-income students of color — might have to reconsider where they end up.

“I would imagine that there’s a possibility that if families start struggling financially, that students might make different decisions given their financial circumstances,” Acosta said.

Diana Guzman, a senior at Hancock College Prep.
Diana Guzman, a senior at Hancock College Prep.
Provided

Those considerations are foremost on the mind right now of Diana Guzman, also a senior at Hancock College Prep.

“I’m really concerned about being in debt, so I’m definitely looking for a college that has a good award package,” said Guzman, who is interested in attending Earlham College, a small liberal arts school in Indiana, but is also considering attending the University of Illinois at Chicago to save money.

Ultimately, colleges will need to be more understanding of the difficulties students are facing, Walsh said.

“We all have to be flexible and adapt to the current situation in order to meet our students and families where they’re at,” he said.

Contributing: Nader Issa