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8 min read

Disrupted: A College Admission Season Unlike Any Other

Disrupted: A College Admission Season Unlike Any Other

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 a 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 nationwide as students continue completing some (if not all) of their classwork remotely.


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 became a puddle in a matter of months!

Higher education leaders have also grappled 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, especially as pandemic-related funding has subsided. 

Moreover, the potential offset to these expenses—tuition revenue generated by new and returning students—is uncertain. Normal off-campus recruitment activities continue to be reduced for many institutions, and traditional means of applicant assessment have been severely compromised. As a result, the predictive metrics that have enabled institutions to manage enrollments (and revenue) with great precision for decades are gone!


What Does This Mean for College Admission in 2024 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 revenue, 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 can 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 can 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, plus 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!

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:

    1. Program of study to meet your academic needs
    2. Style of instruction consistent with how you like to engage in learning
    3. Level of rigor commensurate with your ability and preparation
    4. 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 landscape. 


4 Areas of Institutional Changes That Impact College Planning

In 2020, I interviewed 20 deans of admission from across the country to learn more about how their institutions responded 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, plus the tips and strategies for navigating the changing landscape that followed. Points of interest include material changes in:

    1. Instruction
    2. Access to College Campuses
    3. The Manner In Which Applicants are Assessed
    4. 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, and 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's consistent with your learning style. If you are self-disciplined, focused, and comfortable working independently, then attending an institution that provides 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

Even if COVID-19 is no longer a serious health threat, expect institutions to continue exercising caution in returning to traditional instruction. And don’t be surprised if they elect to retain some of the pandemic-induced innovations.

Plan accordingly

If remote learning isn’t working for you, or you're simply not sure what next steps to take in your post-high school plans, 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. If you choose this option, ensure the 4-year college you would transfer to will award credit for courses you have taken at the community college.


Changes in Access to College Campuses

The first order of business for colleges and universities in mid-March 2020 was to close their campuses. For students eager to start their college searches, the traditional college trip, with tours, interviews, and information sessions, has decreased. Similarly, recruitment events like college fairs, open houses, and admission officer visits to high schools have become less common. Feeling understandably dislocated from colleges, students have been at a loss about making direct connections.  

Fortunately, most colleges rallied quickly to introduce measures for virtual tours, virtual information sessions, and virtual interviews. 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 now 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

  1. Just do it! Take advantage of all opportunities for virtual access
  2. 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
  3. Reach out to the admission officers who recruit at your high school. When you have important questions, ask them
  4. 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're 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 or 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

Activity in the world came to a screeching halt in March 2020. Schools closed, sending students to isolation in their homes. Athletic seasons and musical performances were canceled, 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, these 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!” Many institutions are eager to know how you dealt with this adversity.


Alternative Measures


Perhaps, the best evidence of this sensitivity is found in the fact that many colleges pivoted optional standardized test score reporting. 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, and many schools remain test-optional. 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. 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

  1. Use your research into the institution to prove the synergy between your sense of purpose and the programs offered
  2. Be intentional about using all parts of the application to connect the dots of your story and reveal your sense of humanity
  3. Take advantage of the optional essay prompt on the Common Application that enables you to address your response to the pandemic and the disruptions it brought to your learning environment
  4. 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
  5. Ensure 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
  6. 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
  7. Stay focused academically—and sprint to the finish!


Changes in Pricing and Cost Affordability

Just as educators pivoted to create instructional options in 2020, 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 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 has never 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 before making an enrollment commitment. 


Tips for Navigating Matters of Pricing, Cost, and Affordability

  1. Secure written confirmation of first-year costs associated with the instructional options made available to your student at colleges of interest
  2. Complete the online FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application as soon as possible. You will be required to provide data from your tax return from the previous tax year
  3. 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 uncomfortable 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.


Finding Perspective

To say that we are living in challenging times is an understatement. While the circumstances dictating how 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. 

Much of the innovation that emerged around instruction and recruitment recently 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 2024.

This article was originally published on November 18, 2020. It was updated on April 9, 2024 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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