The college admissions landscape is continuing to change due to the impact of coronavirus, prompting dozens of questions from members of the College Confidential community on how their experiences will be affected.
To answer those questions, College Confidential hosted a webinar on April 3 entitled "How COVID-19 is Impacting Admissions." During the event, moderated by Yale University sophomore Vikram Akwei, the following panelists offered their perspectives on how the landscape is changing during this unprecedented period:
- Sheena Ramirez, director of recruitment in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.
- Alice Arredondo, Ed.D., director of admissions at the University of Missouri Kansas City, and the assistant dean of admissions at the UMKC School of Medicine.
- David Lesesne, Ed.D., vice president for enrollment, and dean of admissions and financial aid at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.
The panelists reminded attendees that in this time of uncertainty, things are changing daily -- so although they presented the most current information available as of April 3, information will be evolving as the crisis continues, and some factors may change between now and the next admissions cycle.
Check out the following topics that the panelists discussed, along with their views of how things may unfold.
Some HS Seniors Are Changing Plans for Fall
In response to a question about whether colleges are seeing the same number of commitments from high school seniors as they did in prior years, the results were somewhat mixed.
In some cases, students who were planning to commit to one college for this fall have changed their minds due to the coronavirus, Arredondo said, noting that a recent survey showed that some students are no longer planning to attend their first-choice colleges, while others are staying on track with their plans. "I would say for us, we are seeing pretty steady engagement from our admitted seniors, although we're getting a lot of questions about financial aid and scholarships, and we are also getting a lot of questions about what classes will look like in the fall."
Lesesne noted that Randolph Macon is seeing "probably a 10 to 20 percent slowdown in terms of what we might typically see in terms of decisions and commitments, and that's not surprising, given the circumstances. We're doing the best we can to answer that uncertainty and work with students to help them make informed decisions individually based on their unique circumstances," he said.
Ramirez said that because her program at James Madison centers around the visual and performing arts, most students had an opportunity visit campus already for such events as auditions or portfolio reviews, "so they've had a chance to make those connections with faculty members and envision themselves at JMU -- so we're actually seeing a little bit of an uptick in the number of deposits from what we normally see this time of year," she said.
Because senior year is such an important time, normally filled with end-of-year milestones that the class of 2020 is unable to enjoy, Ramirez said admission offices "want to give students the stability of finding the right college for the fall through options like virtual campus exploration tools and other options."
In addition, the panelists noted that although they hope incoming freshmen will be able to start classes on campus in the fall, they are working on contingency plans in case that's not a possibility.
Fall Admissions Will Be Viewed Through Different Lens
Many current high school juniors have expressed concerns about the fact that they don't have access to standardized tests or extracurricular activities, and that the switch to online learning has affected their grades. The panelists discussed how they will be viewing fall admissions decisions through a different lens for the class of 2021.
"It's going to be a very different lens and a very empathetic one," Lesesne said. "It's a very different spring of junior year for these students and I think we will certainly take that into account. Many schools, mine among them, are considering versions of test-optional admission for juniors. Some schools have already announced that, and many more I'm sure are considering it."
As for students whose classes have moved to pass/fail grading formats, that, too, will be taken into account as colleges evaluate applications, Lesesne said. "I'm hoping that we'll have a more traditional fall. Assuming that we do, i think it's fair to say that many schools will probably be very interested in [how students perform during] the fall of senior year, so that may be a difference too. That may delay some decisions and some processes for some schools in terms of early decision perhaps and/or early action, so that doesn't mean there's going to be a constriction of seats, it just means there may just be an adjustment of the admissions process to meet this very unprecedented circumstance."
Arredondo agreed that some deadlines may be pushed back later this fall, but this may depend on when students will be able to sit for the SAT or ACT again. She advises students to stay in contact with the schools on their lists to determine if any admission policies have been adjusted, which may vary by program.
At UMKC, she noted, the school has been test-optional since January for many programs, but for others, a test score is still required. For instance, the school's six-year BA/MD program still uses test scores in the decision process. "I think what will happen in those cases if we don't have test scores is that we will be relying even more on a holistic review process than we already do. Metrics are one part of holistic review, but I imagine if we don't have as many metrics, we'll be relying on other things students can share on their applications."
Ramirez reminded students in the visual and performing arts that this period is an opportunity to individually hone their crafts. "It's a lot more of an individually focused time, but in the end it's going to make them stronger artists and more competitive when they are doing auditions and portfolio reviews in the spring of next year," she said.
Schools Opening Lines of Communication With International Students
All of the panelists expressed how important international students are to their campus communities, and are working on contingency plans in the event that some students are not able to travel from abroad for classes this fall. They encouraged international students to stay in close contact with the schools on their lists to keep the lines of communication open so the schools and students can work together to mitigate any issues.
"If there are still restrictions in the fall, we are going to figure out how to work with those students," Arredondo said. "We don't want them left out due to what's happening right now, so there will be lots of contingency plans in place and lots of things to make sure those students can still get the educations they're seeking."
Transfer Admissions May Adjust to Pass/Fail
Because many universities have moved to a pass/fail grading system during the shift to online learning for the spring semester, transfer students could be affected when it comes time to fill out applications, since their GPAs may be impacted. The panelists all noted that they will be taking this into account when reviewing transfer applications.
"For transfer students coming in, if they're only able to present pass/fail grades, previously our policy would be that you needed at least a 'C' or better to transfer credit, but now we'll just take a 'pass' and we'll work with students individually to do that," Lesesne said. "As we look at GPA thresholds, we'll take into account that spring academic courses may not be able to contribute to their grade point averages."
If you are considering transferring to another school, contact the institution to determine how they'll be viewing your transfer credits in light of this change to ensure you get the maximum amount of credits during the transition.
Some Medical Schools Still Requiring Actual Grades
Some students, however, may be particularly impacted by the pass/fail grading system -- particularly those applying to certain graduate schools.
"There are some medical schools who have stated at this time that they will not accept pass/fail grades for prerequisites to medical school, and there are some other health professional schools that have announced the same," Arredondo said. "But the majority of schools are going to figure out how to accept those courses and not penalize medical school, physician assistant school or dental school applicants, or whatever the health professions might be."
Addressing the admissions processes at the UMKC School of Medicine, Arredondo says the admissions committee is constantly reviewing recommendations and resources from the Association of American Medical Colleges on how to proceed and work with applicants. "In my experience, and -- granted -- we've never experienced something like this, but when we've dealt with issues, even at an individual school that impacts our applicants, we figure out a way to work with them. We don't want to widen the gap between students who can go to medical school and those who typically don't go to medical school, so we don't want to penalize any students for situations outside of their control."
She encourages students to reach out directly to the graduate schools that they are considering. "There are some medical schools at this point who have said that they will not accept a pass/fail grade for a prerequisite course, that they will require the students to retake that course for a grade. Others are going to accept the pass/fail, so it's school by school right now," she noted.
This is also important to keep in mind if your current institution is giving you the option of taking a letter grade or a pass/fail grade for this semester. If your target graduate school requires a letter grade, keep that in mind when making your decision.
Financial Aid Offices Working With Families
When it comes to making financial aid decisions, institutions are working to help accommodate families as they navigate new economic landscapes. "We're seeing tremendous economic disruption and unemployment, so our challenge is quantifying what the long-term challenges are for students, but we are working with families individually and will continue to do so," Lesesne said. "An important thing for all families working with financial aid offices to remember is that we do have the capacity and ability via a process called 'professional judgement' to work with family circumstances, but we're seeking guidance from the Department of Education as it relates to federal Title IV funds. They've given us a little more flexibility, but there's still a lot of uncertainty with that."
Keep in mind that in many cases, your financial aid package is determined for one year at a time. So while you may get more aid this year, hopefully your situation gets better, and if it does, that need-based aid may go away to a family that needs it at that point, Lesesne said.
Arredondo added that UMKC is working with current and prospective students individually, and that the university has created an emergency fund to help students who need extra assistance.
Gap Year Options Could Impact Fall Admissions
Some students have noted that, due to the uncertainty of what may happen in the fall, they're considering taking a gap year and deferring their admission to the following fall. If many students take gap years, it could potentially impact the number of students colleges could accept during the fall round.
However, Ramirez noted, many students are looking toward having a sense of normalcy for the fall, and are hoping to commit to a school rather than deferring admission. In addition, students may not have the traditional gap year options such as traveling, Lesesne said. Therefore, it will remain to be seen if more students than usual take gap years for this coming fall.
Waitlists May Notify Earlier
When it comes to college waitlists, it may be too early to tell whether the odds of a student being accepted off a waitlist will increase or decrease, but it's clear that this year may be different than prior periods. "I think this year is going to throw off all those models that professionals spend years and years putting together," Ramirez said. "If there is movement, I think it's going to be favorable for students, but here at JMU our deposits are up at the moment so we have not had to go to our waitlist." However, she noted, the school plans to take a day-by-day approach as things progress.
Lesesne agreed, noting that calculating the number of students to put on and take off a waitlist is not an exact science. "Bring in a global pandemic and financial recession, and there's more uncertainty, so I guess there may be more activity with waitlists," he said. "Sometimes with a waitlist, you want to see how spring classes are going or whether students can take another standardized test, but that can't happen [in this round], so I think schools may be in a position to make waitlist decisions a little earlier, given all the uncertainty."
Could Bad Spring Grades Prompt Revoked Acceptances?
Some high school seniors wrote to College Confidential saying that their spring grades are down due to the transition to online learning, and are nervous that schools might revoke their acceptances. Although there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, students should work with their colleges if they are having challenges that prevent them from being successful in this new environment, Lesesne said.
"Advocate for yourself and work with your colleges to help understand the circumstances that may not be ideal -- articulating that and sharing the narrative would be appreciated by the schools if you find yourself in a very difficult position of not being as successful as you'd like in the final semester," he noted.
Arredondo added that schools using a holistic review process may not view poor spring performance through a critical lens. "I would hope and expect that if you're using a holistic review process, one semester's grades would not then influence a decision that has already been made," she said.
Effect on AP/IB Credit Remains to Be Seen
The final question that the panelists answered involved whether colleges will be changing their AP or IB credit rules in light of the upheavals happening this spring, including the cancellation of IB testing.
"Our academic standards committee is looking at that and we're consulting with the College Board, who has already announced that at least for AP, they're going to have an online, 45-minute test," Lesesne said. "We're trying to get a little more information about the validity of that, but we're going to try and be empathetic and work with students on this to try and help them get that credit if they've earned it. The IB credit is a little more challenging because they've decided there's not a summative test version for that."
He said one possible option is to consider awarding credit based on the class grades, but it's important to remember that an AP credit demonstrates that students have a firm grasp of the class material. Particularly in subjects that build into the next course level, if they don't have a solid foundation in the first course, it may not be in a student's best interest to be advanced into that next class level, he said. "I know it's hard if you feel like you've invested so much and you're not going to get credit, but it's also academically and developmentally what is in your best interest because we want you to be successful at the college level."
Ramirez echoed that sentiment. "We require a 5 on the AP Music Theory exam to receive AP credit, and that's because those students are skipping an entire semester of a four-semester curriculum on Theory. We still have to make sure the level of classes they're taking at the AP level will be such that they'll be successful in the classes they're continuing to take at the college level."
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