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Kansas City's College-Bound Students Making Hard Decisions About Fall

Summer Kelly will start her sophomore year at Northeastern University from her home in Kansas City.
Julita Latimer
Summer Kelly will start her sophomore year at Northeastern University in Boston from her home in Kansas City.

While college-bound students may want to pack up and head off to far-off schools, they're now forced to make hard decisions about deferring those moves until a less risky time.

Like most people these days, Riley Donaldson’s summer has not turned out as expected.

The recent graduate of Shawnee Mission North High School was accepted into the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to work toward a BFA. But she won't be heading there in the fall.

“I graduated in December so I could work full-time, so I could save up money for Chicago,” Donaldson says. “Now I’m still working the same job, which I love, but community college and being a barista isn’t what I planned on this year.”

That's because Donaldson feels certain that if a school opens in person, it’ll shut down within a month because someone will contract COVID-19 — and she isn’t about to pay private school tuition to take online courses.

Now she’s enrolled at Johnson County Community College, where she’ll at least have a photography course in person.

Mimi Doe, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions in Boston, works with hundreds of students every year to help place them in the best possible colleges and universities based on their interests and strengths. She’s been talking to a lot of families in Donaldson’s situation.

“Plenty of schools are saying: ‘Come on back. We’re going to be partially online but partially in the classroom,’” Doe says. “But what they’re not telling families is that faculty are voting department by department at many colleges and universities.”

She says she knows of two universities whose entire English department has voted not to teach in the classroom this fall.

For established students, like Julita Latimer’s daughter Summer Kelly, who will be a sophomore at Northeastern University in Boston, taking classes online made sense.

Kelly, who lives with her family in Kansas City, really wanted to be back on campus, but her mother says she relented and agreed to stay home and start her year remotely.

“My daughter’s future is in medicine,” Latimer says. “And I was like: you’re not listening to the people you’re aspiring to be, who do that kind of work.”

She says her daughter feels better about the decision now, but it was difficult knowing she wouldn’t return to campus as planned. As a family, they decided they’d still pay the higher tuition of the private school rather than have her take a gap year or credits at a community college.

Latimer says Kelly’s academic advisor told her to move courses like organic chemistry to another semester, when she’ll be able to do the lab work in person.

Riley Donaldson planned to study film photography at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She developed this picture of herself.
Riley Donaldson
Riley Donaldson planned to study photography at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She developed this photo of herself.

Donaldson says she deferred enrollment because she couldn’t imagine paying “more money than I’ve ever had, or more money than my family’s ever had, just to be sitting in a dorm online.”

However, Doe says there’s no guarantee that a student can defer admission right now.

“That’s tricky,” she says. “Dartmouth put out a press release saying, ‘We are giving zero deferrals; nobody will get a deferral.’ Then, three days later, because of all the pushback, they back-stepped and said, ‘We will give deferrals.’”

But determining who will be allowed to keep their place for later — including financial aid offers — will be up to individual schools. And the onus may be on students to prove why they should be allowed to wait until next year to attend.

Based on communications from families Doe has worked with, one plus that’s come out of all the uncertainty is that it’s given families more time together.

“I’ve had nobody say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait to get away from my parents, now I really want to go to school in Scotland.’ Or, ‘God, you’ve got to get this teenager out of here,’” Doe says.

So, while it’s less than ideal for students who meant to move away to still be home, in many cases it’s also afforded teenagers, young adults and their parents a new look at their relationships.

Doe says, “It’s really changed how they’ve decided to craft their work life, their summer life. They’re all wanting now to look for jobs” closer to home.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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