Pandemic impacting many students' college plans

The pandemic and economic crisis are impacting freshman enrollment in colleges this fall as many students are either putting it off or changing schools.

College admissions experts say state schools, such as the University of Houston, could become more competitive this year because more students will want to save money and attend school closer to home.

"They're closer and they're cheaper," said Ibrahim Firat of Firat Education.

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Firat says many students are also either deferring enrollment or taking a gap year.  He's seeing gap year interest rise from about 5 percent a year to 20% this year.

"Gap year means you take a structured year, whether you do community service, learn a new language, learning how to play an instrument," said Firat.

The University of Houston says summer enrollment is up 20% and fall enrollment is about the same as last year so far, but the school is extending the application deadline this year.

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"We've announced that we've extended our application deadline into July.  Students will have until July 17th and give them unit July 25th to complete their application," said Mardell Maxwell, Executive Director of UH Admissions.

Firat says that's because state schools fear the "summer melt," when students start to change their minds.

"Throughout the summer, for whatever reason, mostly financial, but also it could be scared of going out of state," explains Firat.

UH once projected a 5% drop in this fall's enrollment.  If that happens, Maxwell says it could mean budget cuts.

"Maybe there's a program that is really important to us, but maybe we can do without that program next year," Maxwell said.

Texas Southern University says fall enrollment is down 15%, but many students usually wait until late summer to enroll.

Rice University says freshman enrollment is slightly up over last year and encourages students not to take a year off so that they don't lose focus.

If your finances have changed, be sure you re-approach your school's financial aid office for assistance. Firat says they can increase your aid, defer tuition, or offer you a payment plan.

Community colleges also offer classes at a much lower cost.

Statement from Texas Southern University on enrollment and fall classes:

"Yes, our summer enrollment is relatively even/flat compared to last year’s summer enrollment.

Texas Southern University has a phased, 3-stage approach we are calling “Return to Tigerland."

We are preparing for Phase 2, which is a “transition” stage in which more of our essential personnel will return to a modified on-campus work schedule.

When we enter Phase 3 in August, we are preparing for a mix of in-person and online instruction for our students for the fall semester.

Currently, we are handling our student-focused services remotely (advising, library/research, tutoring, career services, etc.) using virtual tools and services.

We are preparing for the fall semester by ordering social distancing signage and other health/safety-oriented signage, in addition to thoroughly cleaning the campus, emphasizing high-touch surfaces, and installing new hand sanitizer stations in the buildings."