College & Workforce Readiness

Weighing College in a Pandemic: Opening Decision Letters Alone in the Dark

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 20, 2020 | Corrected: November 12, 2020 4 min read
Liz Ogolo made the decision to attend Harvard University this fall after consideration of how isolation from her community might affect her.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the virtual advising group CollegePoint, which is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

On Ivy Day last March, Liz Ogolo had her pick of top universities, including Harvard, Stanford, the University of California Los Angeles, and the University of Texas. It should have felt like a triumph for the valedictorian of Elsik High School in Houston, the first in her family to attend college.

Instead, in the middle of the pandemic, it felt like one more reminder of how isolated she’d become from her school community.

“My mom was working. My sister was at college. I opened all my decision letters, back-to-back, alone in the dark in my room,” Ogolo, 18, recalled. “I was not happy at all.”

“It had been a couple of weeks since the school had closed, to the point that I knew for sure that it would be impossible for me to go back to school because I knew corona[virus] was not going to be a one-month thing,” she continued. “So I was grappling with the reality of that as well as, you know, the uncertainty of what my future might look like in this pandemic, and then also realizing that this transition was going to be unlike anything I had ever heard of, and I would most likely be going through it alone.”

In fact, that thread of isolation had wound through Ogolo’s entire college decision process in 2020. The first-generation Nigerian-American was senior class president and deeply engaged in leadership and extracurriculars at her school, but when she started to make plans for after graduation, she found her school and classmates were not on the same page. An Education Week Research Center survey of 2020 graduates and the adults at their former schools has found significant gaps between the priorities adults think they are laying out for college planning and the information students think they’ve received.

“In my high school, we are a lower-income school, and they kind of geared us towards going to in-state schools or our local community college,” she said. The guidance counselor could give her relatively little information about top in-state schools like the local Rice University, she said, and virtually none about other highly selective colleges. “I felt like I was completely on my own, honestly, in terms of, like, getting help from school to venture out of state.”

But last fall, Ogolo participated in the Questbridge National College Match, a nationwide program to expose low-income students to highly selective colleges. It helped her find out more about competitive schools that might accept her and connected her to them online. She also connected with a college adviser through CollegePoint, a virtual advising program funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

In the end, Ogolo said she chose Harvard University not for a specific program or financial aid package, but because she found a group-chat of other students across the country who were also considering the school. Connecting with them via a chat app gave her the confidence that she would have community far from home.

“I was looking for anything that would make me feel at home or make me feel a sense of community with people I would be going to school with,” she said. “Those 11 people essentially were the reason I found myself at Harvard. In the uncertainty of it all, they were my only known variable.”

While Harvard has started this fall with all-virtual classes, it allowed freshmen like Ogolo to stay on campus in socially distanced dorms. But the social distancing and remote learning have made the transition harder.

Professors have been encouraging but are slower to recognize on Zoom when students are becoming confused during discussions, she said. And “because it is virtual, it’s a little bit harder to reach out and ask for help,” she said.

“It’s a little bit harder to make those connections that you would otherwise have made with classmates. So it’s harder to say, ‘Hey, I’m confused,’ and ask another student to see if they can help you.”

Looking back, Ogolo said people at her high school showed great sympathy for the Class of 2020, but going forward, schools should work to make sure high schoolers have a consistent, reliable structure for getting help making college and life decisions during the pandemic. She called for educators and school leaders to provide a stronger community and support system for students to counteract the isolation of the pandemic.

“Essentially, I needed a place I could say, ‘Hey, I’m really worried about how I’m going to pay for college; do you have any advice for me?’ ‘Hey, my mom is an essential worker right now. I’m really scared for her safety. What can I do to make sure that she’s safe?’ And, ‘Hey, I’ve had a really, really bad day. I think being inside or not being able to see my friends is really taking a toll,’” she said. “I surely do worry for seniors in the class of 2021 because … there’s still so many questions swirling through their minds … and I really think that there’s not always going to be answers, but there needs to be additional support.”

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Coverage of the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at www.jkcf.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2020 edition of Education Week as Weighing College in a Pandemic: Opening Decision Letters Alone in the Dark

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