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Coronavirus upheaval puts Chicago students’ college journeys in jeopardy

Chicago junior Luz Mayancela posed in 2019 with J.B. Pritzker, now Illinois governor, at Chicago's Soldier Field, where she took part in an ROTC color guard.
Chicago junior Luz Mayancela posed in 2019 with J.B. Pritzker, now Illinois governor, at Chicago's Soldier Field, where she took part in an ROTC color guard.

Chicago junior Luz Mayancela is bent on becoming the first member of her immigrant family to go to college.

But the coronavirus outbreak and the abrupt closure of her Westinghouse College Prep high school filled her with self-doubt and anxious questions. Will she lose momentum without her school’s weekly college entrance exam prep program? Can she stay on track without a ready line to her school counselors? Will she get a chance to turn likely Bs in a couple of her classes into the As she needs to cinch selective college applications?

“This moment might be determining my future right now,” Mayancela said. “It’s really devastating.”

Coronavirus disruption has thrust college-bound high school students in Chicago and nationally into an unnerving period of uncertainty. Juniors worry about upended plans to take college entrance tests this spring. Seniors are raring to visit the shuttered campuses that are courting them.

School closures disconnect first generation college applicants like Mayancela from high school counselors and other key allies on their college journeys. For the almost 80% of Chicago Public Schools students who are low-income, the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is complicating an already stressful, high-stakes process and in some cases shifting attention to fulfilling more basic needs such as food and shelter.

Nonprofits and colleges have sought to help prospective students navigate the upheaval. Some schools, such as the University of Illinois at Chicago, moved quickly to push back deadlines for students to accept their admission offers.

“We don’t want to force families into making important decisions for which they are not prepared,” said UIC Vice Provost Kevin Browne.

Grappling with unknowns

Taft High School Junior Zion Trinidad was slated to take the SAT college entrance exam at next month. But the College Board cancelled all exams nationally amid the coronavirus outbreak. Trinidad already missed taking a practice version of it last fall because of the Chicago teachers strike. Although he now has more time to prepare, it’s without help from his Taft math teachers.

He wonders, “When will this be over to the point when we can visit colleges?”

Tobias Straus, a senior at Lane Tech College Prep High School, had committed to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Now, he worries that if the coronavirus crisis lingers, his foray into college life might take place at his Chicago home.

“I would be upset if I had to start college online,” Straus said. “A large part of college is social and relationship-based, so missing out on that would be disappointing.”

Meanwhile, school and nonprofit staff who work with college-bound students are grappling with how they can keep supporting them at a crucial time, especially for seniors.

Michele Howard, Chicago Public Schools scholarship manager, recently emailed students that she is pressing scholarship providers to push back application deadlines because not all students have access to computers and internet at home. But she also urged students not to delay applying.

Andrew Johnson and Ryan Kinney, college and career advisers at Westinghouse, had lined up some 200 appointments with seniors and their families in the coming weeks to help sort through financial aid offers and college decisions. Many families struggle with the confusing process of verifying information from their federal financial aid applications.

The counselors are working to shift some of those conversations to the phone or online, but they will miss the chances to corner and nudge students in the hallways.

“That personal connection and the accountability that comes with it is out the window,” said Kinney.

They worry some families, beset by other pressing concerns, plan to delay college applications until school resumes. But with closures in Chicago extending until at least mid-April and some states warning that students might not return to school at all until the fall, college hopefuls can easily fall behind. And in a time of crisis, students might forego more selective and sometimes more affordable options out of state in favor of the real or perceived security of staying close to home.

In the Chicago district, which has called on all students to apply to at least five colleges, just shy of 70% of students enroll in college even in stable times.

“Still here for them”

Many campuses are exploring ways to accommodate students — and thus increase their odds of enrolling them.

Many had to cancel the in-person campus visits for admitted students — chances to sit in on a class, chat with faculty and current students, and grab a cafeteria meal, all to help students make up their minds about where to go.

The University of Illinois at Chicago is beefing up virtual opportunities to check out the campus. It and other institutions pushed back deadlines to commit from May 1 to June 1. The university does not require a deposit, but many colleges do.

“It’s hard to show what the campus is really like virtually,” said Browne, the vice provost.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling created an online tool to help students and families track coronavirus-related changes, including campus closures and deposit deadline changes.

Christine Poorman, Chicago’s executive director of College Possible, a nonprofit that helps low-income students get into college and graduate, said the organization is also grappling with how best to stay in touch with about 600 juniors and seniors in the program.

“Anyone doing this work needs to brace for impacts on so many fronts,” she said.

Poorman said as students begin receiving acceptance and financial aid letters, College Possible coaches help them weigh aid offers against how well institutions match students’ needs. That assistance, crucial for first-generation students, is now “in jeopardy.” She said the nonprofit is working hard to provide this coaching remotely, though about a quarter of its students don’t have either a computer or internet access.

At OneGoal in Chicago, which works with 4,200 juniors, seniors and college freshmen, managing director of foundations Lindsey Nurczyk said that in the days after schools closed, its staff focused on helping students work through emotions, such as disappointment about delayed tests and anxiety about graduating on time. Some have been consumed by more urgent concerns, such as access to food, housing and — for students who are parents — child care.

“Right now, a lot of the conversation has focused on their more basic needs as humans,” she said. “We’re making sure they know we are still here for them.”

Juniors who are getting started on their college applications also face uncertainty. The groups that administer the college entrance exams ACT and SAT have cancelled or rescheduled upcoming tests. The ACT test normally administered in early April, for example, was pushed back until June.

Institutions such as Case Western Reserve University in Ohio said they will make standardized test scores optional for applicants for fall 2021 because of the virus — and more schools might follow suit.

Still, for students who had worked hard to prepare for April test dates, the move was unsettling, Poorman said. Advocates for college-bound students hope they can keep up their application momentum.

Mayancela, the Westinghouse junior, said she has more urgently been scouring the internet for information. She started applying for a summer program that helps students get into college. On Twitter, friends recommended the Khan Academy test prep videos. She researched college majors for politics wonks and Googled “early action.”

“School was my only source of information to prepare to start applying to college,” she said. “This is setting me back. It’s also giving me some independence.”

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

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