Decision Day Still Looming as Viral Outbreak Delays College Admissions Process

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

When it comes to the academic calendar, the only certainty left in the wake of the novel coronavirus is that this current year is coming to a close. What that means for the fall semester has left students and admissions offices guessing. 

May 1 was National Decision Day, when high school seniors declare which college they’ll be attending in the fall — and put down a deposit with that decision. But this year, many schools have changed their deadline in order to accommodate economic challenges deriving from COVID-19. While the extra time allows students to take a pause in their enrollment decisions, they will still need to sort through what effect these changes in deadlines will have for their enrollment opportunities.

Marie Bigham, founder and co-leader of Admissions Community Cultivating Equity & Peace Today (ACCEPT), an advocacy group focused on college admissions reform, has urged institutions of higher education to push back their decision deadlines.

Toward the end of March, with enrollment deadlines approaching, Bigham's group began urging institutions to push their deadlines to June 1 to give students and families more time to sort through their enrollment options. 

“As an organization we really felt like that extra time should give people some breathing room, some ability to pay attention to the shifting nature of this [pandemic], to get finances reordered,” Bigham said. “And just to understand that in the middle of a fairly epic crisis that maybe people just needed to not focus on [the deposit deadline] for a minute.”

Bigham began assembling a document to track how many schools were moving their deadline, and has continually updated the document, which currently has over 180 entries.

The admissions process has been upended by the pandemic, which Bigham said has resulted in students needing to take stock of their options — and in some instances they’ve changed dramatically.

“We've also heard of pretty unprecedented moves, like colleges reopening applications, selective colleges now saying, ‘Oh hey if you live within 150 miles you can reapply.’ We've seen students who were denied by selective colleges, get un-denied, placed on the waitlist and then get admitted,” Bigham said.

To Bigham all of this uncertainty means the admissions process will need to be flexible. 

“It's almost like any of the predictability of when a class should be set is really just out the window now, and I think colleges are going to just keep making changes to the process and their tactics of filling the seats, as long as this continues,” Bigham said.

In terms of getting a clear picture on what fall enrollment looks like, Bigham said the calendar may not play much of a role. 

“Honestly, this is such a cynical way of putting it. I think that this academic year's admission cycle won't really be settled until this crisis is settled,” Bigham said. 

According to an annual update from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) — meant to help counselors, parents, and teachers assist students in their college search — more than 600 colleges and universities still have enrollment opportunities, financial aid, and housing available for the fall semester.

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at NACAC, said June is going to be a very important month for getting a sense of the admissions landscape for this cycle.

In a typical year, most colleges are largely done with their recruiting process by the May 1 deadline, Hawkins said. Some have previously extended recruitment through the summer to ensure their classes are full, but now the majority of schools have had to reassess their enrollment dates.

“This year the COVID-19 measures have really ... obliterated that date as sort of a monolithic presence,” Hawkins said. “Some colleges did still ask students to respond by May 1, but as you've seen a large number — and we're talking hundreds of colleges — have pushed back their deadlines anywhere from May 15 to June 1, and I'm sure there are some even beyond June 1.”

Many institutions operate on a rolling admissions basis and have enrolled students until the start of the fall semester. While this is an option for some schools, Hawkins said a number of institutions will want to begin getting a start on next year's enrollment process. 

“Given what we've seen in our outreach to our members, it looks like the month of June is going to say a lot about whether colleges are, in fact, going to be able to close up shop for the year and and move on towards fall enrollment and the next college admissions cycle,” Hawkins said.

Whenever schools are able to move forward, Hawkins said that they’ll be likely to implement capabilities they’ve developed at the outset of COVID-19 for the next three to four admissions cycles, such as virtual recruitment..

As enrollment for the fall semester becomes clearer, Hawkins said he would not be surprised to see colleges that serve a local cohort to increase their enrollment numbers due to the pandemic, though enrollment numbers for schools that rely on a geographically diverse cohort are of great concern for the upcoming academic year.

Queens College, City University of New York, which has a regional focus, is one school that moved its deposit deadline to June 1, and is preparing for an influx of students for the coming year.

Chelsea Lavington, director of undergraduate admissions at Queens College, said while the school did not move the deadline for enrollment in its honors program, officials felt it was important to be flexible with general admissions.

“We do understand that a lot of students are still figuring out what's going on because everything is unknown, and up in the air,” Lavington said. “So we're just trying to be sympathetic to students and families because unfortunately a lot of families are losing jobs right now.”

It’s not the first time the school has had to accommodate a larger incoming class in the wake of a national emergency, Lavington said.

“It's a different crisis, but during the 9/11 crisis a lot of students wanted to stay home and they all flocked and our numbers increased because of that. We're just preparing for that — we see our numbers are growing right now,” Lavington said.

In terms of general admissions, Lavington said Queens College is about 200 deposits ahead of where it was at this time last year — a trend that has pushed college officials to determine whether they will implement a waitlist “for the very first time in history” for accepted students. 

What Lavington said concerns her is that local colleges will get more competitive as these deadlines get pushed. She said she has already seen students willing to compromise financially in order to stay local. 

“We even had a student who unfortunately missed her deadline for the honors college and she wrote us back and said you know I don't want to go away anymore. I don't care if I don't have that scholarship, I still want to come,” Lavington said.

Bigham, meanwhile, said she is hopeful that all this uncertainty will be a catalyst for some systemic changes in the admissions process, or at least cause the profession to reevaluate some of its practices.

“I will be very curious to see how colleges that are planning to go test-optional or test-blind, but only for three years, how many of them stay that way,” Bigham said. “If we can shift things this fast for issues that used to be sacred cows, like standardized testing, maybe this can be the catalyst for some really good positive change in this process.”


Publication Date: 5/14/2020

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