COVID Adversely Impacting High School Seniors’ Outlook on College Enrollment

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

A recent batch of polling data has found that the timing of the COVID-19 outbreak is affecting high school seniors' outlook on the college admissions process particularly as families across the country are facing new financial realities, raising significant concerns about fall enrollment.

One national survey by the marketing and research firm SimpsonScarborough found that about a quarter of high school seniors who have already picked a college can be considered “at-risk” for changing their minds about where they will attend college this fall. 

According to another poll, from Art & Science Group, 1 in 6 of four-year college bound students appear to be near the point of giving up on the idea of attending a four-year college or university as a full-time student in the fall.

The Art & Science Group also found that two-thirds of graduating high school seniors are currently concerned that they may have to change their first-choice school due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Of those students, more than 20% specifically said they may not be able to attend their first-choice school because their family may no longer be able to afford it.

“The impetus for this study was simply the rising concerns around the pandemic and the potential impact on enrollment this coming fall,” said Craig Goebel, a principal at Art & Science Group.

The national poll, conducted from a sample of key demographic groups — academic ability, geography, and socioeconomic status — aims to shed light on the potential national impact of COVID-19 on college choice.

While the poll outlines a number of general trends, the accompanying report stresses the importance of each college or university determining what’s going on in its own specific pool of admitted applicants.

“It's a warning, but it's on a national sample and it doesn't, therefore truly apply to any individual institution,” Goebel said. “If that were to bear out at any individual institution, it would be a critical event for them, an existential event, if you will.”

The initial poll was conducted between March 17-20 and recognized that student thinking is likely to evolve as more realities about the novel coronavirus continue to unfold. 

An update to the initial poll is in the works and is expected to be unveiled closer to May 1. Goebel also anticipates that they’ll publish another version mid-summer, and aim to provide more insight into student perceptions. 

Jayne Caflin Fonash, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), said she was glad to learn that the Art & Science Group planned on publishing additional iterations of its survey. 

“I think it's a snapshot that can inform [college admissions counselors] about the number of things that students are concerned about right now,” Fonash said.

In a future version of the poll, Fonash wants to know more about the 1 in 6 students who indicated that they were thinking of not enrolling in school next year and will be focusing on whether that number goes up or down. 

Fonash also wants to know more about students’ perceptions of online learning. 

“As we get further into [online learning], what will be student perceptions about that learning platform and the possibility that that could go forward in some way?” 

Nearly half of the respondents to the Art &Science Group poll reported that, specifically because of the COVID-19 crisis, they were potentially more interested in taking an online program or course as part of their post-secondary educational experience. 

However, currently enrolled college students appear to be souring on the practice.

After only a few weeks of online learning, current college students, according to the SimpsonScarborough data, are already critical of the quality of the online instruction they are receiving; two-thirds rate it worse than in-person instruction.

The outbreak is already altering enrollment realities for the fall semester. How dramatic of an impact is yet to be seen, but Fonash encourages students to not put off their plans to enroll in higher education.

“If someone feels prepared academically and financially to begin school in the fall, I hope they'll do that. We're depending on this class to be part of the next generation of scientists and economists, and researchers and leaders who are going to take care of us when the next crisis happens,” Fonash said.

As counselors continue to navigate the enrollment realities, Fonash remains optimistic that higher education administrators will persevere in addressing the myriad challenges imposed by the crisis.

“I hope that admission officers will find the right balance between putting students' needs first while still balancing their responsibilities to their own institutional goals and expectations,” she said

More financial realities will begin to set in with high school seniors sending in their statements of intent to register, and financial aid administrators will have to process these dramatic new realities unfolding for families in real time.

Specifically, Goebel has concerns about financial stressors surrounding prior-prior year (PPY) in determining financial aid offers, with administrators currently determining financial aid awards based on 2018 incomes.

“We had over 10 million people file for unemployment last week, and the numbers are only going to go up this week as well,” he said. “There's a huge number of families that aren't going to have the incomes that they did in 2018. And that's something I think institutions really need to pay attention to, and to develop new models and new ways of approaching families that are under completely different financial circumstances today than they were when they were filling out their FAFSAs or their aid forms.”


Publication Date: 4/13/2020

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