Helping High School Grads Make a Plan for Next Year

Melanie, an 18-year old high school student, told me recently, “I am a planner, but these days I can’t really plan.” Such is the world for high school upperclassmen, especially seniors.

As we leave behind the month of May, the time when schools typically host graduation ceremonies, students either experienced a virtual ceremony or they are having to wait until August. What’s more, this past month was a big deadline for millions of students to declare where they plan to enroll in the fall.

This year is different.

Most of the students I’ve met with in Generation Z say they are rethinking their fall plans. What if college looks different in the fall? What if we’re still practicing social distancing? That affects the residence halls, the classrooms, and the dining commons. Many students now question the price tag of a college experience if they’re forced to take many of their courses and experiences on-line. Some say campus life was a big part of their decision. 

Colleges are hurting financially and struggling to figure out how to make the value proposition high enough for seniors. University admissions staff have been warned enrollment may be down 15%. At some colleges, they are preparing for a 20% drop in enrollment. One dean asked recently, “How are we going to adjust not just our budget but our very business model?” 

The fact is enrollment will drop. Not only do students question the value of being on a college campus due to COVID-19, they’re weighing out the value vs. the cost of higher education, period. Unlike Millennials, Generation Z is rethinking their post-secondary experience. They don’t feel they have to go to college to succeed. Their population is smaller and far savvier to our changing world. While I believe strongly in higher education, Generation Z is growing up in a world that offers them personal platforms that no longer require a gatekeeper to succeed.

  •     Musicians don’t need a record label.
  •     Authors don’t need a trade publisher.
  •     Want to raise money? You don’t need a non-profit organization.

Making Decisions in Our New Normal

Below are some of the questions high school seniors are asking themselves:

1. Is college worth it?

COVID-19 only accelerated the discussion on the value of college. While salaries for college graduates remain higher than non-graduates, more and more from Gen Z are finding their passion and getting right to it without wading through a liberal arts degree. Right or wrong, millions are simply not doing what past generations did as they graduate into a world that allows them a platform to create something and requires no degree.

2. If it is worth it, do I look for one in a state with a lower COVID-19 infection rate?

Many students who do still plan to attend college may make a decision based on the geography of the school not just its reputation. Is the school in a state with a lower infection rate for the coronavirus? Are they able to live in a dorm and connect with fellow students? What COVID-19 testing is available? How close are hospitals and their home? There are new factors families must consider when choosing a college today.

3. If it is not worth it, how do I spend my gap year?

Gap years are increasing in popularity. These high school grads invest their time for a year doing something other than sitting in a classroom. Both of my kids did a gap year and benefited greatly from working, earning, serving, and discovering their interests before entering college and declaring a major. This may be a perfect time for a gap year. 

“Everyone is freaking out a little bit,” says Chris Rim, CEO of Command Education in New York. “Typically, one 2 or 3 students want to take a gap year; this year, it’s about 75 percent.” Some tutoring programs say all their students plan to take a gap year. 

Scenario Planning

I suggest you help your teens do what many businesses are doing right now: “scenario planning.” With your group (a family or a class of students) list three columns:

1. Worst Case Scenario 

If reality turns bad, COVID-19 spreads, death rates rise and nothing opens, what do you do? 

2. Moderate Case Scenario

If many realities continue, but not all—such as school reopens, but no vaccine exists—what do you do?

3. Best Case Scenario

If no health safety or financial crisis continues, and life was back to normal, what would you do?

Our organization, Growing Leaders, has done scenario planning and we’re making plans for all three scenarios. Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst. I believe it is wise leadership for students as well.

Helping High School Grads Make a Plan for Next Year