Disrupted: A College Admission Season Unlike Any Other
By Peter Van Buskirk on November 18, 2020
March 13, 2020—Friday the 13th, nonetheless—will long be remembered, in a cruel and prophetic twist of irony, as the date when the emerging coronavirus pandemic shut down schools and colleges, sending students on an historic Spring Break. What, for many, began as a scheduled hiatus from the books grew into a protracted separation as their institutions scrambled to find solutions.
The sudden disruption forced educational institutions of all sizes and stripes to change “on the fly” over the extended Spring Break. The impact is still felt across the country as students have limited access to classroom instruction with many learning remotely or via home-schooling.
Implications for Higher Ed: "Melting the Glacier"
The challenges to providing accommodation were particularly acute on college campuses where change typically occurs at a glacial pace. Remarkably, within weeks, educators pivoted, piecing together a patchwork of socially distanced learning options, creative scheduling and expanded use of technologies that allowed students to finish the academic year. The proverbial glacier had become a puddle in a matter of months!
Higher education leaders have also had to grapple with COVID 19 implications as businesses. The pandemic shut down campuses, limiting access to vital revenue streams generated by both current and future students. Meanwhile, maintaining some semblance of current instructional activity while reimagining outreach to prospective students has expectedly strained collegiate operating budgets. In other words, higher education is taking a big financial hit due to the pandemic.
Moreover, the potential offset to these expenses—tuition revenues generated by new and returning students—is facing great uncertainty. Normal off-campus recruitment activities have been, all but, eliminated, and traditional means of applicant assessment have been severely compromised. As a result, the predictive metrics that have enabled institutions to manage enrollments (and revenues) with great precision for decades are gone!
What Does This Mean for College Admission in 2021 and Beyond?
The college-going process is changing out of necessity as we watch—and that works well for consumers. In need of certainty, for both student enrollments and subsequent tuition revenues, colleges are likely to “over-admit” in the admission process thereby improving, albeit slightly, the probability of admission for many competitive candidates, especially those who do not require financial assistance. And, with an eye on maximizing revenue per enrolled student, look for institutions to aggressively use their resources to leverage the enrollments of the students whom they value most.
In Time of Change, Double Down on Your "Purpose"
While a “buyer’s market” is sure to emerge, it will benefit most those who prepare well—and the preparation begins with college planning rooted in a sense of purpose. Students who are able to articulate thoughtful “I want” statements in response to questions such as, “Why do you want to go to college?” and “What do you want to accomplish during your college years?” reveal ownership and direction guided by a clear set of priorities. Young people for whom a college education is a considered choice— approached with intentionality—are better positioned to select institutions that make sense to them. And then, as applicants, they are able to present their credentials in a manner that clearly reflects the synergy that exists between themselves and the place.
...And Focus on "Fit!"
It’s easy to be influenced by pop culture and the media in arriving at a list of colleges. After all, who wouldn’t want to attend “the best” college as defined by well-meaning friends and colleagues, as well as no fewer than half-a-dozen ranking guides currently in circulation. Be wary of such sources as they rarely speak to the student’s predisposition for learning. Nary a single ranking guide presumes to identify the best college for you or your child!
The best college planning in any circumstance—and, especially, during a health pandemic—is derived from a sense of “fit” for the student. The best college fit will provide a:
- Program of study to meet your academic needs,
- Style of instruction consistent with the manner in which you like to engage in learning,
- Level of rigor commensurate with your ability and preparation, and
- Sense of community that feels like home.
- The best college fit will always be the one that values you for what you have to offer!
Each element of “fit “is a valid consideration for college planning in any environment. You will see, later in this article, how they can have a direct bearing on how you might navigate the changing college-going landscape.
Four Areas of Institutional Changes That Impact College Planning
Earlier this year, I interviewed 20 deans of admission from across the country to learn more about how their institutions were responding to the pandemic. You can find the series here:
Those conversations, as well as my own experience as dean of admission, shaped the preceding environmental assessment as well as the tips/strategies for navigating the changing landscape that follow. Points of interest include material changes in:
- Access to College Campuses
- The Manner In Which Applicants are Assessed
- Changes in Pricing/Cost/Affordability
Changes in Instruction
The educational pivot has been well-documented. Colleges have found instructional alternatives that are keeping most of their students engaged. Remote instruction (synchronous and asynchronous), socially distanced classrooms and labs, compacted schedules, traditional classrooms and hybrid approaches are all in play right now. And they will continue to be in play for the foreseeable future.
Students must be clear-eyed about what they are getting into—and need to be conscious of playing to their strengths. Think “fit” and choose a style of instruction that is consistent with your learning style. If you are self-disciplined, focused and comfortable working independently, then attending an institution that provides any degree of remote instruction could work well for you. Conversely, if your dream school offers remote instruction but you thrive in the more intimate learning environment that had existed on that campus pre-COVID 19, choosing to enroll at that school—at this moment in time—would be ill-advised.
Tips for Choosing Instructional Environments Consistent with Your Learning Style
Don’t assume that instruction will return to “normal” in the Fall of 2021.
Even if COVID 19 is no longer a serious health threat, expect institutions to exercise caution in returning to traditional instruction. And don’t be surprised if they elect to retain some of the pandemic-induced innovations.
Ask college personnel to see their strategic plans for addressing pandemic instruction.
Check out their transition calendars. “Normal” could be 24 months away. You need to know.
If “remote” learning isn’t working for you, consider taking a “gap” year. To do so, apply for admission with your high school cohort and, upon gaining admission, defer your enrollment for a year.
Alternatively, be ready with a “Plan B.”
Consider a period of study at a local community college until normalcy returns to your preferred college. If you choose this option, make sure the four-year college into which you would transfer will award credit for courses you have taken at the community college.
Changes in Access to College Campuses
A first order of business for colleges and universities in mid-March was to close their campuses. For students eager to start their college searches, the traditional “college trip,” with tours, interviews and information sessions, has been on hold ever since. Similarly, recruitment events like college fairs, open houses and admission officer visits to high schools have ceased. Feeling understandably dislocated from colleges, students have been at a loss with regard to making direct connections.
Fortunately, most colleges rallied quickly to introduce measures for virtual tours, virtual information sessions and virtual interviews. In fact, faculty, students and staff at many institutions are “on call” in response to prospective student outreach, giving the latter unprecedented remote access to the people and programs that are important to them. The enterprising student can actually learn a great deal about colleges of interest without setting foot on their campuses!
Tips for Gaining Access to - and Building Relationships with - Colleges of Choice
- Just do it! Take advantage of all opportunities for virtual access.
- If you ever have an opportunity for an interview with an admission staff person—live or virtual—take it! It’s always a good idea to have exposure with a decision-maker!
- Reach out to the admission officers who recruit at your high school. When you have important questions, ask them.
- Research colleges online. Go beyond confirming your major on the homepage. Explore the academic program of interest. Who teaches? What are their specialties? What is the culture of the department like? Are there related student organizations?
If you find yourself intrigued by a professor’s scholarly work, send an email requesting a video call. See what you can learn about the origins of their interest and the likelihood that you might engage with them in independent study/research. The more you know, the easier it will be to demonstrate the synergy between your sense of purpose and the institution’s ability to meet that purpose.
Changes in The Manner in Which Applicants are Assessed
For all intents and purposes, activity in the world came to a screeching halt in March. Schools closed, sending students to isolation in their homes. Athletic seasons and musical performances were cancelled, as were science competitions, summer camps and leadership programs. The schedule for college entrance testing (SAT/ACT) was impacted as well with most testing sites remaining closed through the summer.
To many, the Spring semester resembled a poorly planned fire drill, ending with an assortment of pass/fail assessments and little sense of satisfactory closure. Among aspiring college applicants, the questions loomed large, “Will colleges know? Will admission officers understand what we have been through?”
The answer is a resounding, “Yes! You’re not alone!” In fact, many institutions are eager to know how you dealt with this adversity.
Perhaps, the best evidence of this sensitivity is found in the fact that many colleges made the submission of standardized tests optional. Acknowledging that students can’t be accountable for test results they couldn’t reasonably acquire during the pandemic—and aware that admission committees can make good decisions about whom to admit without test scores—more than 600 institutions joined the ranks of the test optional in 2020. WWW.FairTest.org provides a complete list of the test optional institutions in alphabetical order.
Given the disruption to classroom instruction and, in many cases, the absence of test results, admission officers are likely to rely more heavily on subjective means in assessing candidates. In particular, they will be sensitive to your resourcefulness and seriousness of purpose. For example:
- When everything was closed, how did you respond? What did you do when you didn’t think you could do anything?
- How did you reimagine yourself at a time when all of your normal points of engagement were denied to you?
- Why have you applied? More importantly, can you demonstrate the synergy that exists between your sense of purpose and the programs they offer?
And, mindful of the historic nature of the times, admission officers will try to discern your awareness of, and engagement in, the world in which you live. They’ll read your application carefully to learn as much as they can about you in this regard. So:
- How well do you know yourself? Where does your moral compass lead you?
- What concerns you—and what gives you joy—in life?
- Where do you think you might be able to make a difference in the world?
Tips for Presenting a Compelling Application in Light of COVID-Related Changes to Assessment
- Use your research into the institution to prove the synergy between your sense of purpose and the programs offered.
- Be intentional about using all parts of the application to “connect the dots” of your story and reveal your sense of humanity.
- Take advantage of the optional essay prompt on the Common Application that enables you to address your response to the pandemic and disruptions that it brought to your learning environment.
- If an interview with an admission staff person is offered, take it! You will find few better opportunities to connect with a potential decision-maker.
- Make sure your recommenders are informed and able to interpret your academic progress and capacity for growth, including your performance during the pandemic. Help them help you tell your story!
- When applying to test-optional institutions, do not submit your scores if your super-score for the SAT or ACT is at or below the posted average for the school. Such scores cannot help and are likely to introduce a negative bias if submitted.
- Stay focused academically—and sprint to the finish!
- Use your research into the institution to prove the synergy between your sense of purpose and the programs offered.
Changes in Pricing/Cost Affordability
Just as educators pivoted to create instructional options earlier this year, their fiscal counterparts were busily modeling related pricing scenarios. What would it cost to offer asynchronous, remote or hybrid options? What of the expense involved with safeguarding classrooms and labs? Could residence halls be opened safely—and at what cost? And what would be the costs, in lost revenue, of not having students engaged in full-time, residential learning?
The outcomes of such deliberations have varied across greatly across institutions. While some have offered a la carte pricing, others decided to maintain a single fee for all options. Regardless, there is not much transparency. Quite frankly, beyond publicly reported tuition, room and board figures, there never has been much transparency into the total cost of attendance.
Given the potential variability in pricing during the pandemic, though, there has never been a greater need for clarity. Families should be diligent in assessing financial exposure and that means securing written confirmation of total first-year costs prior to making an enrollment commitment.
Tips for Navigating Matter of Pricing/Cost/Affordability
- Secure written confirmation of first-year costs associated with the instructional options made available to your student at colleges of interest.
- Complete the online FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application as soon as possible. You will be required to provide data from your 2019 IRS return.
- In the event that your 2020 financial circumstances are markedly different from those reported for 2019, provide documentation of changes directly to the financial aid offices at the colleges to which your student has applied. Do this as soon as possible after your student’s application for admission has been acknowledged.
Make an honest cost-benefit assessment. If you are not comfortable paying the original residential sticker price for your student to take instruction remotely at home, consider alternatives (gap year, local community college) until “normalcy” returns to the four-year college in question.
To say that we are living in challenging times is an understatement. While the circumstances dictating the manner in which we live might change, life goes on. And, for millions of young people eager to pursue higher education, that includes a very different-looking college-going process.
While there is reason to believe that the health crisis will pass, there is no known endpoint. Nor is there any certainty that things will return to “normal” when that happens. Much of the innovation that emerged around instruction and recruitment in recent months will find permanent places in reimagined processes going forward. So, rest, assured. However foreign it might seem, the college-going process will work—and students will start their college experiences in the Fall of 2021.
About the Author:
This article was written by Peter Van Buskirk. A 25-year veteran of the college admission process, Peter is dedicated to helping families find student-centered solutions in college planning. His ability to interpret and personalize a complex, and often mysterious, college-going process makes him a popular speaker among students, parents and educators. Peter is a Strategic Advisor for Scoir and the Founder and President of Best College Fit. His creative programming has informed, inspired and entertained more than 2,000 audiences around the world.