At first, Rosalie Ngatchou wanted to go far away to college, to see more of the world and gain independence. A senior at a District of Columbia. charter school, she cast her eyes to an outpost of the State University of New York in Oswego on Lake Ontario.
Now, like many college-bound students, she's thinking local.
Her mother's day-care business has closed. Money is tighter. Familiar surroundings feel safer. So Ngatchou is taking a second look at schools closer to home: University of the District of Columbia and George Mason University in Northern Virginia.
"I realized how important it is to be able to access your home as quickly as possible," Ngatchou said. "Things can change in an instant."
These kinds of calculations are injecting unusual turmoil into an admissions season shadowed by huge question marks about when and how colleges will reopen their campuses. The May 1 decision deadline that many schools use to fill classes has come and gone. In an overtime season without precedent, recruiters everywhere are scrambling to find students willing to travel out of state to enroll.
The imperative to fill seats is urgent for almost all colleges during the economic downturn. But for public universities, it is especially vital to secure out-of-state students because they typically pay higher tuition rates.
Hundreds of colleges and universities have pushed back decision deadlines to June 1. Some prestigious schools that held to May 1 nevertheless gave more time to those who asked. Greg Roberts, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, said the school gave about 100 extensions. "We were very accommodating," he said.
Roberts said U-Va. is on track to fill its incoming class of about 3,750 students, with its usual mix of about two-thirds from Virginia and one third from elsewhere. But he is keeping close watch on international enrollment, which is vulnerable to pandemic travel restrictions, and the university began to make offers from its wait list in April, somewhat earlier than usual.
Undergraduate tuition varies at U-Va. depending on academic fields. But a Virginian enrolling next fall in the College of Arts & Sciences who did not receive financial aid would be charged about $14,000, not counting fees, room and board. An out-of-state student would be charged about $48,000.
Multiplied times thousands of students, the out-of-state rate yields tens of millions of dollars in revenue, for U-Va. and many other public universities.
That is critical for those schools in an era when state appropriations fund a smaller share of their operating budgets. The economic crisis caused by the pandemic could also squeeze state funding. And international enrollment, another key source of revenue, could plummet. Students from China and other countries pay the out-of-state rate at public universities and form a large share of the student body – sometimes 10% or more.
That makes students like Ashley Kimani especially valuable right now.
Kimani, 17, of Urbandale, Iowa, said this week that she is weighing offers from private Brown and Rice universities, among others. She had been on the wait list for the public University of California at Los Angeles. But in late April, UCLA made her an offer, and she's considering it.
UCLA's out-of-state tuition and fees for the coming year are about $43,000. That's nearly $30,000 more than the in-state rate but about $16,000 less than the cost at Brown.
For some students, deciding where to enroll may come down to how schools reopen in the fall. Stacy Hernandez, a college admissions consultant in Denver, said many families are reluctant to pay tuition if colleges are operating only online. "That's what I'm hearing over and over again," she said.
Brown's president, Christina Paxson, recently warned in an opinion piece published in the New York Times that schools must plan to open in the fall despite major questions about how to do it safely
"Most colleges and universities are tuition dependent," Paxson wrote. "Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue."
A growing number, including large public universities in Texas and Arizona, are announcing their intention to open campuses in the fall.
Kimani said she doubts the pandemic will affect her decision-making. Even if campuses are closed for the fall term, she said, she will enroll at a college outside Iowa.
"I'm a pretty optimistic person," she said. "I'm just thinking that if I continue with going to school, everything will turn out to be okay in the end."
UCLA's vice provost for enrollment management, Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, said the university so far is meeting its targets for the incoming fall class. But initial numbers could provide a false sense of security.
Even in an ordinary year, some expected students who have placed a deposit "melt" away and do not enroll. This year, the melt could be extensive.
"Historically, UCLA's summer melt has been very low, but these are uncharted waters for all colleges," Copeland-Morgan said in an email. "Recognizing that some admitted students may decide to stay close to home, we will use our waitlist to invite as many of these well-deserving students as we can to become Bruins."
Georgia Tech has made several hundred offers since April to out-of-state students who had been on its waiting list, according to admission director Rick Clark. He said the public university in Atlanta counts on out-of-state enrollment to provide diversity to a campus where Georgians are the majority. "You promise your own in-state students, 'Hey, you don't have to go to far-flung places; we're going to bring the world to you,' " Clark said. But those out-of-state students also contribute hugely to the fiscal bottom line.
Clark said Georgia Tech built its largest wait list ever this year and could continue drawing from it well into the summer. College counselors say many seniors need that much time to sort out their plans.
"I have a good number who haven't made a decision yet, and we're having to go back and forth with universities," said Jessica Perez, an adviser with the nonprofit District College Access Program. Perez said deadline extensions have helped families who are struggling with whether going away to college is affordable and safe. "Parents are hesitant, students are hesitant," she said. "There's a lot of uncertainty right now."