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USA TODAY

As Guam high school seniors navigate a complicated college admissions process, a global pandemic has forced them to face unprecedented confusion.

Students must build resumes with no extracurriculars, navigate online classes and select colleges without in-person visits.

“College applications is still a priority and always will be until I graduate, but spending this much time alone at home has forced me to reevaluate what is important,” said Marina Babauta, a senior at John F. Kennedy High school. 

Because of pandemic restrictions, more than 60% of four-year universities are test-optional.

For her dream schools, Babauta feels relieved that test scores are optional, but worries that she needs to focus on recommendations and extracurriculars, which receive extra attention this year. 

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“As a student applying to college, you never know what the outcome will be,” Babauta said. She hopes to leave the island to attend college. 

Emphasis on factors other than test scores

Colleges will look at the upcoming application cycles to evaluate whether the lack of tests impacts admissions decisions.

“My suspicion is that they will realize their incoming classes will still be of similar quality and more schools will opt to become test-optional,” said Jane Shiu, the college admissions counselor at St. John’s School.

Since test scores are no longer a requirement, greater emphasis will be placed on student grades, the rigor of high school coursework, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities and essays, Shiu said. Schools will likely not use test scores to determine merit scholarships, since students are unable to test.

“Based on the shifting demands for employment, the Guam Community College offers a program for students to continue their studies and leave with a better advantage to get a job,” said John Dela Rosa, the school’s assistant director of communications and promotions. (Photo: Frank San Nicolas/PDN)

With the exception of a handful of selective schools with the largest endowments, many schools face plummeting enrollment and lost revenue. Colleges may choose to reduce the scholarships they offer because of the school’s reduced cash flow or admit a student body with more students who pay the full tuition, Shiu said.

Financial aid

Due to a standstill in tourism, many Guam families reliant on the hospitality industry may require financial aid through merit scholarships or loans.

“It’s even more important now that students and families have honest conversations about expected family contributions,” Shiu said.

Shiu recommends students take loans less than the expected starting salary for the jobs they’ll qualify for once they graduate.

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“If you take a loan out to college, you are now invested in your education to a degree that you might not be if your education was completely covered by the school or your parents covered all of it,” Shiu said.

Western schools

Students from Guam can also consider colleges in the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education or the Western Undergraduate Exchange.

Bound by their commitment to serve 16 states and territories, both networks provide students with tuition saving options. Schools popular with Guam students, such as the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, fall under this consortium. 

The University of Hawaii is a popular school for students from Guam, and a more affordable option for local students. (Photo: Getty Images)

“The students who attend school off island go for the full college experience — being away from home and on the road,” said Avice Perez, a college adviser at Father Duenas Memorial School.

Local schools

More affordable options include attending the University of Guam, Guam Community College, Pacific Islands University or starting school on Guam before transferring to a four-year school.

Guam students typically have to pay out-of-state tuition if they leave the island and attend school elsewhere.

Guam Community College offers 12 career and technical education programs in six public high schools. Courses include culinary, technology and automotive training, among others.

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“Coming out of a high school with career technical education, students will have an advantage if they complete their certification, come through the Guam Community College, and go back to the workforce with the certificates,” said John Dela Rosa, assistant director of communications and promotions at Guam Community College.

In a workforce conference held Sept. 2-4, Dela Rosa noted that every participating industry said they were seeking a skilled labor force.

Staying on Guam

Some parents of  2020 graduates opted for their children to defer or cancel enrollment off island and attend school at home.

“They realized the institution will always be there, but they didn’t know if it was worth their children’s safety and well-being,” Perez said.

The Guam Community College campus in Mangilao, July 31, 2020. (Photo: Frank San Nicolas/PDN)

Other students, excited to start college but unsure of where to go, will choose to stay on Guam for lower tuition rates.

“They want to do something, but they don’t know where they want to go, so some will stay to start their higher education and finish the core curriculum requirements,” Perez said.

Once students complete the general education requirements at a cheaper rate, they work with academic advisers to transfer credits and attend a stateside or international college. 

Gap year

Increasingly, students across the country are taking gap years.

“I don’t recommend a gap year for all students because they’ve been building this momentum and a year off can derail them,” Shiu said.

Studies have shown that some students who take gap years are less likely to return to the classroom, and delaying college might lead to a reduction in wages.

But driven students who feel burnt out from pushing through high school may benefit from a gap year, Shiu said.

Before and during college applications, students face the impending and overwhelming question: What do they do for the rest of their lives, career-wise?

“One of the things I always share with my students is that you need to make a choice by the end of high school,” said Joseph Lujan, a school counselor at John F. Kennedy High School.

The college admissions process represents the first step among many applications and opportunities in life.

“But it’s not your end game, and you can always change your mind,” Lujan said.

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