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What Does College Look Like In Fall 2021?

Freshman Savanna McIntosh, right, moves into a dorm with the help of her mother Dena McIntosh at UNLV, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas.
AP Photo/John Locher

Freshman Savanna McIntosh, right, moves into a dorm with the help of her mother Dena McIntosh at UNLV, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas.

It’s that time of year when high school seniors start finalizing their plans for college. But this year’s class is facing some of the same uncertainties as they did in 2020.

Will their college offer in-person classes? Can they live in a dorm? Is it worth it yet to even go to college this year?

There are a lot of tough questions for a young person to tackle, especially with educational commitments and thousands of dollars on the line. 

And because of those questions and other factors at play in higher education both UNLV and the University of Nevada, Reno are pushing back application and decision dates.

"There are so many other factors going on, and it's not just the pandemic, it's the economy, it's so many other things that families have to make decisions on," said Steve Maples, director of admissions at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Stephen McKellips, associate vice president for Enrollment and Student Services at UNLV agreed. Plus, he said it has been difficult for students to do the traditional tour of the campus like in years past.

"The ways in which students get their information has been different," he said, "We've tried to adjust as much as possible to be able to get that messaging out to people so that they learn what they need to learn."

McKellips said UNLV is offering more time, but he did advise that those who are thinking about applying should do so.

"We're at a point where, honestly, students that are in the maybe category they should probably go ahead and start that application process," he said, "Not all institutions are going to be open as they might like and to center on the most available information, applying as soon as you have that interest is going to be the best advice for everybody."

Maples said UNR has pushed its deadline for application to June 1. He said the university is aware that most students have not been in a situation where their high school counselor can pull them aside in the hallway to remind them to turn in an application or a student loan form. 

"We're trying to be wary of that," he said, "And so, we're trying to provide those opportunities." 

When those students do arrive in the fall, Maples said his university is going to try to give the arriving freshman, who lost the last few months of their junior year of high school and almost their entire senior year, an experience as close to normal as possible.

"Events like orientation are like the first events that are going to look like something that they would have expected before," he said, "We have a lot of students very excited about coming to an orientation and being able to meet and interact collaborate with other students almost for the first time in a year and a half."

That in-person interaction is something students around the country are craving, according to Rick Hesel, principal with Art and Science Group, which studies trends in higher education.

The group's survey of students last year found a majority were not interested in enrolling in online-only classes. Hesel said the same is true a  year later. 

"Students want to be physically present in college, want to do classes in person, and online maybe as a supplement for some courses, but they don’t want to do online,” he said.

He said the interaction with professors and other students is what college kids crave.

"Students long for that. They want this personal experience,” Hesel said.

A survey Hesel's group conducted last year found that 15 percent of students said they would be deferring college by at least a year. He said, as it turned out, that is about how many students deferred. 

Most of those students were more affluent and could afford to put off college for a year.

Hesel said now there is a rush of students applying to elite schools.

“Based on our experience the more elite and selective institutions are experiencing tremendous increases in applications,” he said.

He said less competitive programs, especially community colleges, have seen a large drop in applications.

“The experience so far has been that lower-income students are far less likely to apply and enroll in college in the current environment,” Hesel said.

He also said that was true of students of color as well.

The cost of college was a problem for many people, and the pandemic just made that problem worse, Hesel said.

Gabby Weaver is studying graphic design at UNLV. She told KNPR's State of Nevada that at first the transition from in-person classes to online classes was difficult, but now she has gotten used to it.

For her, returning to in-person classes is about safety.

"Smaller class sizes would definitely make me feel safer and more comfortable. I think that would be very important," she said.

Some colleges are talking about requiring a vaccine to return to in-person classes. Weaver disagrees with that idea.

"I personally don't plan on getting vaccinated unless I need to," she said, "I don't think that should be mandatory to have in-person classes."

Rick Hesel, Principal, Art and Science Group LLC; Steve Maples, Director of Admissions, University of Nevada, Reno; Stephen McKellips, Associate Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services, University of Nevada Las Vegas;  Gabby Weaver, Student, University of Nevada Las Vegas, Zachary Green, Graduate, University of Nevada Las Vegas

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Kristen Kidman is the senior producer at KNPR’s State of Nevada and is proud to be from Las Vegas.