HomeNewsDigital college with unchanged costs creates ambiguous student responses

Digital college with unchanged costs creates ambiguous student responses

By MICHAEL LAKIND

More so now than ever, talking to a parent about their time in college sounds like another universe entirely. Only being charged $10,000 a year and getting to attend the school of your choice in person? Ridiculous.

With their fall 2021 semester juxtaposed against what might be the most impactful public health crisis in American history, this year’s Carmel High School seniors are feeling apprehensive about going right off to college after the 2020-21 school year.

Although high school has taken the form of back-to-back Zoom classes, the plus side is that it’s free. CNBC reports that 40 years ago, the average total costs of a year at a public and private university was $7,770 and $17,030, respectively. In 2019, those averages were $21,370 and $48,510. And those astronomical figures represent the costs of in-person school, so making the conversion to online learning without a significant drop in price makes students uneasy.  

Isabel Reed attends Chapman University from the comfort of her Carmel home. (Photo by Isabel Reed)

“After many discussions with my parents on whether to defer my acceptance, the main issue is whether the tuition we are paying was worth it because, as we all know, it is challenging to fully understand and learn material through online education,” says 2020 CHS graduate Isabel Reed, who is currently taking classes digitally at Chapman University. “The recorded lectures I honestly prefer because you can watch them on your own time and can pause them or rewind, which makes it easier for me.”

A usual college freshman’s first task is to get acquainted with their new campus, which for this year’s freshmen is simply their bedroom. Transitioning from high school to college with no tangible sense of change between the two environments is certainly odd from a multitude of standpoints. 

“I think higher education is forcing itself to look at how they deliver the curriculum of a course,” says CHS academic counselor Yesel Von Ruden, whose insight on college admissions decisions comes from her experience as an application reader at California State University campuses. “They’re doing a lot of hybrid and online stuff too.”

Interest in the courses offered has proven to be a strong motivating factor for students choosing to attend online school. The lack of productivity that results from taking a gap year can lead students to going through with their applications, especially if they had already planned on studying something they enjoy, like 2020 CHS grad Wyatt Wadsworth, who is studying the many disciplines of music at Berklee College of Music. Pursuing his passion is a goal of his that remains untouchable by the pandemic.

At Berklee College of Music, Wyatt Wadsworth is completely decked out in his dorm. (Photo by Wyatt Wadsworth)

“I do believe (attending this fall) was the right call because I have already learned a lot,” Wadsworth says. “Through this process, I get used to the online systems no matter how bad they are, and learn to work with them.”

Many students who graduated last year opted to take a gap year or to enroll in a few courses at Monterey Peninsula College, deciding that free tuition couldn’t be beaten. The altered setup of today’s education system has deterred many students from approaching college as they would under normal circumstances, but taking advantage of MPC’s convenience is attractive to many. 

2020 CHS graduate Nate Blakely is one example of this. Last spring, he was offered entry to University of California, Santa Cruz, but declined. He is currently attending MPC online, but even as soon as later this year, he hopes to transfer to a program in outdoor education and environmental studies. The claustrophobic feeling of online school is the antithesis of where he sees himself: taking in the openness and nature of a place like Arizona.

“My buddy is taking a gap year, and I sort of wish I was doing that,” Blakely says. “But being at MPC keeps my options open for where I go next, so I’m also happy to be in the classes I’m in right now.”


Students who were surveyed on the differences between in-person and digital school unanimously pointed out the sharp contrast between the quality of learning in regular and distanced school environments. Seeing colleges make the safe decision to remain online can turn away students who are filling out their applications right now. Even Harvard University reports a 7% decrease in applicants for the Class of 2024, leading to the first increase in their admission rate in the past six years, according to the Harvard Crimson.

To the surprise of incoming freshmen, many colleges did not allow applications to be deferred, even though they knew with certainty that their curriculums would be online this year. While some students were not given this option because they were on the waitlist at decision time, standard applicants did not have the option to take a gap year because they would lose their place at the school of their choice. 

Recent CHS graduate Yvonne DiGirolamo ran into this problem. After starring in every theater production she auditioned for at CHS, she was excited to major in drama at University of California, Irvine. With the obvious restrictions on being able to perform live, she grew concerned about what online school would have in store, seeing as she would either have to attend or lose her spot. 

Yvonne DiGirolamo is keeping her distanced learning setup stylish at University of California, Irvine. (Photo by Yvonne DiGirolamo)

“Because UCI didn’t let me defer, I decided that trying to reapply wouldn’t be worth it,” DiGirolamo explains. “Online school did not prove to work for me at all during the second semester of senior year. I’m hoping the way it will be thought out will be more clear now.”

On a contrasting note, online college has turned into a positive experience for some students. Getting the chance to enroll in whatever classes seem the most interesting and taking them from the comfort of one’s own home might be exactly what some students were looking for. Take Carmel Sandpiper alum Jordi Faxon, for example. He graduated from CHS last year and built a curriculum of his own at New York University, blending classical anarchism with a writing seminar, art history and “examining the mundane.” 

“Something that I’m really excited about is being able to take really niche classes in college,” Faxon says. “All the work is pretty interesting. I have a nice quiet place to do my work, it’s mainly just reading, which is exactly what I wanted to do in college.”

For some CHS seniors, athletics serve as a major incentive to attend college. Getting to participate and compete in sports is important to many, and while the contingencies of the COVID-19 pandemic may narrow the scope of their options in that regard, the Class of 2021 has several prospective student-athletes.

“All of the schools I am applying to are in-person this semester,” says CHS senior Grant Gallaway, who competed in multiple sports each year at CHS prior to the pandemic. “I would most likely go because I would be playing lacrosse for the team, and it would be important to get acquainted to my new environment.”

Some student-athletes from last year’s graduating class agree with Gallaway’s thoughts. Having a small piece of normalcy while taking classes online is huge for these students, and certain sports that are socially distanced already make for great ways to stay active during quarantine.

“I did have the option not to attend this semester while keeping my spot on the team, but I decided it would be best for me to go,” says Brenna Ozel, a 2020 graduate from CHS who plays golf for Sonoma State University. “Because it’s golf we have practices in person and we all compete in individual amateur tournaments. It’s nice because I have something normal at school.” 

So does it make sense for this year’s seniors to apply for college? Maybe. Maybe not. Much like the progressing year at CHS, it will become clearer as the weeks and months go by. 

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