COVID-19 Is Making College Planning More Difficult For Milwaukee High Schoolers

Apr 13, 2020

This is the time of year when many high school seniors are making one of the most important decisions of their lives — where to go to college. But the coronavirus has created tremendous uncertainty as students try to plan for their future.

"I feel like at this point, I’m so lost," says Moo Ko Wah, a senior at MPS’s South Division High School. "At school I have my coaches, my mentor. And here I don’t have nobody."

Wah and her family are refugees from Myanmar, and she relies on counselors at her school to help her through the college application and decision process. Now she’s stuck at home, trying to figure out how to submit paperwork to verify her family’s income on the federal student aid application known as the FAFSA. It will determine how much financial aid she gets in college.

Read: Low-Income Students Often Face Additional Hurdles When Applying For College Financial Aid

"I still have a lot of verification to do but it’s hard because at school I fill it out and scan it in and then email it," Wah says. "But I don’t have a printer or scanner [at home.] So it’s kind of frustrating."

Wah does have extra help though, she is part of the College Possible program. It pairs low-income or first-generation students with coaches who help them navigate the red tape of college applications. Brianna Nytes is Wah’s College Possible coach. Nytes says Wah has been texting or calling her almost every day since schools have been closed with questions about verification and financial aid. 

"We’re just not sure how this is going to set students back more," Nytes says. "Especially the ones who don't have the technology right now. They’re not able to work on scholarship applications so they’re missing out on money that they needed."

Most high school seniors who are planning on college already have completed their applications. But many haven’t decided where they want to go. College visits are often a crucial part of the decision, but shuttered campuses make that impossible now.

"I have no idea what campus life is like aside from what I've seen online ... I don't even know what I'm gonna do." - Naoshi Johnson

Naoshi Johnson is a senior at Pulaski High School in Milwaukee. She was accepted to 18 schools, and was looking forward to visiting some of her top choices, like Louisiana State University and Howard University.

"Now I have no idea what campus life is like aside from what I’ve seen online," Johnson says. "So, yeah, I don’t even know what I’m gonna do."

Colleges are offering virtual campus tours and student chats. Johnson tried those, but says it’s not the same. 

"A lot of them are having virtual events or whatever on Zoom," she says. "But I don’t know. It’s good they’re giving me all this information, but I’m not on the campus. I don’t know how it feels to be on the campus. So I’m just gonna try to do as much as I can online, research and whatnot, and make my decision then."

Johnson says she’s leaning toward UW-Madison now, because she’s been there and knows what it’s like.

On top of the uncertainty about the future, students are coming to terms with their final months of senior year being taken away from them.

"This was my last year of high school, it was supposed to end on a good note," Pulaski senior Jeremiah Baez says. "I won’t be able to experience the final high school moments."

"This was my last year of high school, it was supposed to end on a good note. I won't be able to experience the final high school moments." - Jeremiah Baez

Baez says he had a rocky time in middle school and was even expelled at one point. But he’s worked hard in high school to get good grades, and now he plans to attend UWM. 

"I’ve worked so hard, but I knew staying positive and motivated in school would be worth it, walking the [graduation] stage," Baez says. "But now I’m not sure if I’ll have the chance to do that."

MPS has postponed all graduation ceremonies, and the district is still working out how seniors will be able to graduate on time after missing weeks of instruction. MPS is also planning to offer more formal virtual instruction to students, but little information about when that will start and how it will work has been made public. 

Carly Weckwerth, a college and career adviser at South Division High School, has been in close touch with students since schools were closed mid-March.

"They’re bummed," she says. "What can you say? Senior year officially sucks."

Weckworth is trying to help students figure out their future plans, but she doesn’t have answers to a lot of their questions. Will colleges even have in-person classes in the fall? Many are doing online-only instruction through the summer because of the pandemic.

Weckworth says the uncertainty is causing some high school seniors to postpone their college plans altogether.

"The whole concept of college is going away — it’s going to college," she says. "So the fact that it’s like, 'Yeah, I’m going to college this fall, but I’m in my living room...it’s not the same.'"

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