Lucy Tu is well acquainted with online classes and virtual events. She finished her senior year of high school online, wrapped up as editor of the school's newspaper over group chats and video calls, competed in a national speech tournament through a video submission and even had a small graduation party on Zoom.
But she's over it.
As she prepares to begin her freshman year at Harvard University in the fall, she just really wishes she could attend classes with her peers in person.
"I already missed out during my senior year," said Tu. "I know what is lost when you aren't in person. I can't imagine saying hello to all these people I want to get to know better only on a screen."
Harvard University announced earlier this month that the school plans to resume classes in the fall entirely online. While the school expects to cycle undergraduate students on and off campus in smaller numbers, with freshman invited in the fall and seniors in the spring, many students won't be on campus at all. Those who are on campus could be attending classes from their dorm rooms.
Tu was prepared for some differences this fall given the coronavirus pandemic. But what surprised her was that the tuition -- $49,653 (not including room and board) for the coming school year -- would remain the same.
For a student like Tu, Harvard's plans present three less-than-ideal options: pay as much as $63,000 to live on campus for one semester, have a limited experience with her classmates and attend online classes, pay $54,000 for tuition only to take online classes from her parents' house in Omaha, Nebraska, or take a gap year at a time when international travel is difficult and internships are hard to come by and hope for a more traditional freshman fall in 2021.
"It has been a whirlwind of disappointment and I'm trying to stay optimistic," said Tu. "But when we decided we would be committing to tuition costs, it was with the understanding I would be getting the full benefit of the resources on campus and be with my peers. The classes are a small part of what you are paying for."
Students who had already made tough decisions about which school to go to and how much they were willing to pay for it, are now faced with even more complicated and confusing choices: Which option should they participate in -- taking online classes while living on a campus or staying at home? -- and is college even worth the expense right now?
"The cost is weighing on me a lot more," said Tu, who did not receive financial aid and plans to pay for school through scholarships, loans and payments split with her parents. "For my parents, paying even part of that, the question is: Is it worth the cost?"
Her mother, Libin Pan, prefers to cut the room and board costs and see Lucy take classes from home for the year. While the family earns too much to be eligible for financial aid, she said there is not much left over after paying for both Lucy's and her older brother's college educations. In addition, Pan, a computer engineer, has experienced a coronavirus-related reduction in income.
"In this difficult time I'd like to see a school reduce tuition some to reduce the load on the parents," Pan said. "That's why we prefer for her to stay at home. At least we don't need to pay the boarding cost."
But for Tu, studying from home is the least appealing option.
"If I take a gap year, there is a chance I'll get a more typical freshman year," Tu said. "If I go to campus this fall, I'll at least get a taste. But if I stay at home, I'm giving up all of it. I don't know if I could stay motivated or if it will be enough."
Is the cost worth it when classes are online?
Families and students are going to agonize over paying full-freight for online classes, said Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid and student loan expert and publisher of Savingforcollege.com. "It's between the health and safety of your child versus delaying your education for a year, and families have to decide if the cost is worth it."
Some schools made cost adjustments in light of the circumstances. Princeton University, for example, announced it would cut tuition by 10% this year. MIT announced an elimination of its tuition hike for this year, a reduction in dining costs and a one-time grant to undergraduates. Harvard's tuition hike remains in place, although the school will offer a $5,000 per semester allowance to students receiving financial aid who are not living on campus to offset costs of maintaining their learning environment at home.
Even without the changes brought by the pandemic, colleges faced price sensitivity, Kantrowitz said.
"You can get just as good an education at a public college for a quarter of the cost of a private college," he said. "But many people still perceive attending an Ivy League or an elite institution as yielding additional value."
Many students seem to have become skeptical.
Of incoming college students, 21% changed their top school choice this spring, citing cost and location as their leading reasons, according to a McKinsey poll of high school seniors in May. Considering the possibility of remote classes this fall, only 23% of students were confident they could get a quality education that way and just 19% were confident they could build relationships while remote, according to the report.
Of the nearly half of students who plan to change their fall college plans because of coronavirus, according to the McKinsey report, 15% say they are likely to defer for at least a semester.
While taking a gap year could be an appealing choice, it can be a risk, said Kantrowitz, since it can adversely affect your financial aid.
If you take a gap year, and take classes at a community college or closer to home, you will come into your university as a transfer student. "Financial aid for transfer students is thousands of dollars less than for incoming freshman," he said.
Evolving plans for fall 2020
Ethan Shaotran was grateful Harvard offered students the chance to take a gap year this fall. Rather than study online, Shaotran, who lives in Palo Alto, California, plans to intern at a technology company and perhaps write a third computer science book. He's hoping to move in with some other deferring students so that they can learn, work and socialize together in the coming year.
"A gap year is great for personal growth to explore what I'm interested in," he said. "I'm optimistic in the fall of 2021, maybe things will look different."
But Anya Henry, who was awarded full financial aid to attend Harvard, plans to show up on campus because she does not want to risk losing her aid.
She plans to study government, economics or African-American history in the fall. In the spring, she is joining a group of other Harvard freshmen studying remotely while backpacking around the US and visiting national parks.
"That way I could get a gap year experience while still going to class," she said.
The decision about whether to show up on campus or stay home was not hard for Anicia MIller, who is headed to Harvard to study biomedical engineering or biochemistry from her desk by a window in her bedroom in Chicago. She sees only health risks, logistical hassles and unnecessary costs with going to campus.
"I was disappointed that I can't start freshman year there and meet people and get involved with clubs," said Miller, who plans to attend with financial aid and scholarships. "But we're in a pandemic. I don't see a point in taking a health risk for myself or my family. And to go on campus and incur those room and board costs just to take classes online seemed like unnecessary charges to pay for."