Pandemic Begets Financial and Logistical Roadblocks To College

Nikki Harris

The Scholarship Fund of Alexandria (SFA), a nonprofit that raises money for T.C. Williams graduates’ college educations, is facing financial challenges as demand for scholarships from the nonprofit shot up by approximately $100,000 this year, according to Beth Lovain, the SFA Executive Director. 

The SFA holds an annual in-person gala and silent auction to raise money from its sponsors, but this year it held both events virtually.

Lovain said that the SFA raised close to what it raised last year—upward of $400,000—at the virtual gala and silent auction when the expenses of an in-person gala such as renting a hotel and buying refreshments were subtracted. The SFA will continue to raise money through its COVID emergency relief fund this fall. 

Roughy 80 percent of all colleges and universities in the US, according to Lovain, are test-optional this year, changing the game of college admissions for applicants. 

“Two pieces of the admissions puzzle that will carry more weight are personal and supplemental essays and co-curricular experiences (part-time jobs, student clubs, athletics, helping to raise younger siblings at home, service and faith based involvement, etc.),” Lovain said.

The College Board has resumed administering SATs, as has ACT, Inc. for ACTs, but both are offering fewer slots than usual to ensure social distancing. T.C. usually offers students the chance to take the SAT and ACT twice for free, but it has rescinded that opportunity this year.

Kayleigh Janae, a T.C. senior, is applying to college this year. She said she did not take her SAT before school shut down, so now she is only applying to colleges that are waiving SAT scores. 

Lovain said that the financial struggles of students applying to college combined with the threat of the pandemic has anecdotally caused an uptick in students choosing to attend community colleges or in-state universities because of traveling concerns. 

SCHOLARSHIP FUND OF ALEXANDRIA - Scholarship Fund of Alexandria COVID-19  Emergency AppealRecipients of the 2019 Scholarship Fund of Alexandria outside T.C. Williams. The nonprofit awarded scholarships to 170 students in 2019 and 181 in 2020.

 “Students with the greatest financial need can get enough free money through financial aid and/or scholarships to at least pay for attending NOVA next year, so college is still possible for these students,” Lovain said. “Even for students who can’t fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) because of documentation or other issues, there are options to be able to get financial aid/scholarships to help pay for college.” 

Lovain speculated that “proximity to home, the desire to not access higher-risk transportation and financial aid awards due to economic hardship” played a bigger role in where T.C. students decided to go to college last year than previous years. “Initially there was speculation that more class of 2020 students might defer and take a gap year (to work and save money) or choose to start at community college, but the jury is still out on whether these shifts are real.”

Another obstacle seniors have faced is deciding where to apply without being able to visit campus. T.C. senior Grace Yokitis said, “I can’t interact with other students or experience the campus myself. Or feel the climate or taste the food or see classes in action….”

Senior Piper Foley said, “Choosing colleges has been harder for me than I first imagined because not all colleges are offering tours.” 

Although the College and Career Center is still offering virtual support for students on Canvas and on Zoom, some feel that having to fill out college application forms on their own multiplies the difficulty of applying to college. 

“Applying to colleges has now become one of my biggest fears because I don’t even know where to start. It would be nice if we could in-person help, but we can’t. So I feel like now it’s all up to me, and I don’t have anyone to help me figure it out,” said senior Rebecca Viney. 

The pandemic has also made students like Janae reconsider aspirations for what to study in college. Before the pandemic, Janae was planning to major in psychology. But when the coronavirus hit, she helped her cousin start a small business in her area, and now she plans to major in marketing. 

“I definitely think that being in quarantine gave me more time to question what I really want to spend the rest of my life doing,” Janae said.