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Pandemic upends college plans

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The valedictorian at Highland High School had her sights set on the University of Rochester in New York next year.

Then the global coronavirus pandemic hit, and Marina Seheon decided to stay close to home and go to the University of New Mexico. Her parents were against a move across the country.

Marina Seheon wanted to attend the University of Rochester in New York. But the pandemic forced her to rethink her plans. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“They didn’t want me to go,” Seheon said. “Coronavirus in New York is really bad. New Mexico has been doing a good job. Our governor has been really proactive. It’s just best that I stay here for now.”

National surveys indicate that like Seheon, many other recent high school graduates are now rethinking their college plans. Proximity to home and college affordability have become major factors as students ponder their future.

Admissions officials at UNM are left crunching numbers and surveying prospective students to try to project what size its student body will be next year.

‘A lot we don’t know’

“Obviously there’s the unknown. There’s a lot that we don’t know,” said Dan García, UNM’s vice president for enrollment management.

García told a Board of Regents meeting earlier this month that UNM data and national surveys show a mixed bag for how the pandemic will affect enrollment at the state’s largest university.

UNM enrollment has declined for several years, and the school has pumped resources into trying to reverse the trend.

In 2019, UNM had 16,170 students at the start of its fall semester, down more than 18% from 2015, when there were 19,885 undergraduates.

The decline has hurt university finances for years. Last year, for example, enrollment was about 6.5% less than the year before. The unexpected drop created a total budget shortfall of about $4 million.

The school took several measures – including taking $350,000 from the principal of one of its endowment accounts to spend on an enrollment drive – to try to attract more students.

One hopeful trend

There’s some data that appears positive. The number of students who have accepted scholarships at UNM is up significantly – 8,547 students this year up from 7,144 compared with last year, a 19.6% increase, according to regent documents. As of early this month, housing contracts for next fall are about the same as they were last year at this time.

But the pandemic has injected uncertainty into the mix.

García said nationwide surveys in recent months found that more than a third of students are considering a school closer to home, 40% are rethinking the schools on their list and 7% of students are thinking about not enrolling in college next year at all, according to a survey of 23,000 high school seniors by Niche, a company that researches and analyzes college.

A nationwide survey by Longmire and Associates conducted in April through mid-May found that 26% of high school seniors have changed their college plans, according to regent documents.

Living at home while attending college or switching from a four-year university to a community college were some of the reasons cited.

“We’re seeing other national surveys that indicate students are still planning on going to college. They are not giving up on that hope,” García said. “But a sizable number of students are reconsidering schools on their list.”

Dream school to CNM

Tatum Saavedra, another recent Highland graduate, had her college plans go topsy-turvy in the past two months.

In early March, Saavedra decided on her “dream school.” She chose Shippensburg University in southern Pennsylvania.

Tatum Saavedra, a 2020 graduate of Highland High School, was planning to attend her “dream school,” Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. When the pandemic forced the cancellation of her SATs, she lost access to the scholarship that would have made it possible. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Saavedra said she fell in love with the community during a visit there. The school, with just under 7,000 full-time undergraduates, was the perfect size for her – not too big, not too small.

But the pandemic canceled her SAT exam. Without those scores, she lost access to a planned scholarship to make the school and its physical therapy program affordable.

So she changed her plans and briefly decided on UNM. In the past week, she has changed her mind again. She now plans to take core courses online next year through Central New Mexico Community College and then transfer to UNM. Affordability and staying close to family were two of the reasons for her decision.

“I decided to go to CNM because in all likelihood I’m going to end up taking my first year of college online because of the virus,” she said. “I might as well pay a lot less.”

UNM officials have unveiled plans to have a “hybrid fall term.” A planning document released Friday says that critical elements of courses will be done in-person in a controlled way.

CNM officials are hoping they can offer an alternative to students whose college plans have changed. College President Tracy Hartzler said in a statement that the school has a long history of offering courses online.

“For 2020 high school graduates and students who may have been forced to return home from out-of-state colleges, CNM is very capable of serving the needs of a diverse range of students with our many educational and workforce training options,” she said.

Not just college plans

It wasn’t just college plans that have upended the lives of high school seniors across the country. The virus also wiped out the end of their last year in high school.

Seheon took a class over again and worked hard in an effort to become the valedictorian at Highland.

But she won’t be giving a speech to her class during the graduation ceremony.

“I used to be really upset, and I still am. But I’m making the best of the situation,” Seheon said.

And graduation wasn’t the only disappointment. Prom and the last quarter of classes were canceled because of the virus.

“I went through a pretty big emotional downhill when the pandemic first started,” Saavedra said. “You look forward to your senior prom and your graduation your whole life. You dream about it. And then some crazy virus happens and it takes over the whole world and your last year of high school is taken away from you.”

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