Weighing the Back-to-School Dilemma

6 Minute Read

Determining whether a return to campus is right for your student

Families rely on routines and, regardless of whether they are daily or seasonal, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted them all. But the pandemic’s impact on the fast-approaching back-to-school season may be among the most challenging disruptions. Families face tough, and unprecedented, decisions on whether children should make a physical return to campus, continue attending school remotely or, in the case of college students, take a gap year.

The decision is made even more difficult as healthcare experts and school officials struggle to develop safety protocols and treatments for a virus they still know so little about. With little other information on which to base these decisions, using an analytical framework to assess the risks can help families evaluate tradeoffs and make the best decisions for moving forward amid uncertainty. The framework applied here is applicable to families with children of all ages. But it is critical for those attending college, where parents have far less control over interactions, may be less aware of the local risks, and decisions can have significant financial implications.

A framework for complex decision-making

The same goals-driven framework we use to help clients align their goals with financial strategies to plan for the future – including funding a college education – offers application far beyond financials. As a framework intended to facilitate difficult conversations, identify shared goals, and understand and mitigate risk, it can help families address any situation involving a lack of clarity, including a complex and unexpected event like a pandemic. It can even help recognize opportunities that may arise as a result.

Benefits of a Goals Driven Approach

Improved decision-making

  • Visualize trade-offs and evaluate real-world scenarios

  • Stay focused on outcomes – plan, don’t predict

Lifestyle protection

  • Builds a safety net to buffer against risks during uncertain times

  • Offers a more intuitive approach to risk and return that helps minimize behavioral biases

Family collaboration

  • A uniquely interactive experience that allows for structured, objective discussions and encourages collaborative decision-making

Flexibility to accommodate new information

  • Iterate and adjust for evolving circumstances and goals, while exploring impacts and evaluating opportunities and trade-offs in real-time
Revisit your family’s goals to ensure they are aligned

Parents instinctively want to protect and shield their children, often trying to solve problems without their input. However, in our experience of working with families, we have found that knowledge is power when it comes to preparing children to deal with uncertainty. The older your children are, the more crucial it is to include them in the back-to-school discussion to keep their goals aligned with yours.

knowledge is power when it comes to preparing children to deal with uncertainty

Some of the discussion points and questions you should address as a family include:

  • Are you fully informed on all the logistics and safety measures your child’s school is implementing?
  • What are the options provided by the school?
  • Are you concerned about the value you may or may not be given in light of these changes?
  • How important is an in-person learning experience, given the unique traits of your individual children?
  • Have you explored and discussed alternative options, such as remote learning supported by a private tutor?
  • What are your child’s expectations?
  • Are there specific COVID-related financial implications that need to factor into your decision-making? If so, share and discuss that with your child.

Source: Debt.org

Our Take:

Just because you can afford it, should you support it? While classes may be online when students return to campus in the fall, many young adults may still want to live in their college town. You may be able to afford this, but should you, especially if you feel it is too risky for their health? Begin the conversation by discussing the goal; identify it as a lifestyle goal instead of a financial goal or educational goal. Then walk through how to “afford” it and who should “afford” this, you or your student?

Understand the risks

As a family, it is important to review the risks you currently face. These will vary from family to family and based on the age of your children. After all the younger a child is, the more control you have regarding their interactions and activities. Also, the classroom size is likely to be smaller, and your access to and ability to react to new information is more immediate. Key questions to consider as you assess the nature of the risks you face may include:

  • What are the health risks – for both you and your family – of having your student return to this particular school?
  • Does travel to and from school pose an increased risk? What about potential unexpected travel by students who are away at school but sent home unexpectedly, as many were in the spring of 2020?
  • Have financial risks intensified due to the COVID-related business shut-downs and slow returns from quarantines?

Source: Cornell

Our Take:

Many parents are beginning to realize that in this new reality it is necessary to have documents in order, including healthcare powers of attorney and medical proxies, for themselves as well as their young adult children, who are also at risk of becoming ill. Discussions regarding the social risks of campus life and home life (if they are not in school) are also necessary before sending a child back to school.

Explore options for risk mitigation

Based on our experience in working with families faced with tough choices, the corollary to identifying risk is finding ways to reduce it. To that end, transparency and communication are key to reducing risk and building confidence. Work with your older children to come up with solutions you can both live with in advance, especially if they do plan to return to campus. For instance:

  • Would agreeing to guidelines help address your concerns regarding the social risk of on-site learning?
  • Would limiting off-campus access by not sending your child back to school with a car or curtailing spending money help address social risk?
  • Should you set aside additional funding in case your child needs to get home or self-isolate while away from school?
  • What are the long-term financial implications of taking a gap year?

Source: NY Fed

Our Take:

It is important that parents and children openly discuss the benefits of returning to school and the associated health risks. No one is shielded from the constant barrage of news stories, and children of all ages may be internalizing their anxieties. By discussing these risks – in an age-appropriate way – in advance of their return to school, it validates that these feelings are real and helps ensure that the entire family has considered them in formulating the plan forward based on each child’s needs.

Adapt to changing conditions and new information

We are in uncharted waters, with information and guidance changing seemingly by the day. It is important to have a flexible roadmap that can pivot as experts modify recommendations. Some considerations to help your plan flex may include:

  • Are there benefits to remote vs. in-person learning?
  • Would there be a benefit from earning less expensive college-level credits online that could free-up finances for graduate or professional degrees later on?
  • How might a gap year or semester benefit your student?
  • How might remote learning help build remote working skills, as this type of employment arrangement becomes more common?

Our Take:

Discuss the opportunity cost a gap year with your college-aged student would have under normal circumstances and how it might be “affordable” and even advantageous given the current circumstances. There is no right or wrong answer here; each family needs to decide what is best for them. Set parameters and goals so the year moves your child forward in a constructive way.

A Silver Lining: Teachable Moments

The pandemic continues to feed a tremendous amount of uncertainty and anxiety for parents, especially as it relates to sending children away to school, where a family has less control over circumstances and outcomes. But, by using this experience to learn how to have constructive conversations and address concerns, risks and solutions together as a family, there may be a silver lining: empowering the next generation to face adversity with the confidence to persevere.


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