Admissions

Report: Seniors Are Waiting to Apply to College

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Higher education has suffered many negative effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps one of the most interesting — and perplexing for colleges and universities — is the delay in starting the application process for a large portion of high school seniors. This fact was brought out in a survey of 31,000 seniors by Niche and Tudor Collegiate Strategies.


Nearly Half of Seniors Haven't Started Applications Yet

Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik explored some of the key survey findings in his article Waiting for the Seniors to Apply. I thought it may be interesting to look at some of the statistics from the Niche and Tudor survey and try to understand those seniors' attitudes about the college process. Thus, below I'll post the key points cited by Inside Higher Ed and offer some commentary about them based on my experience dealing with seniors I know.

Jaschik opens with a dramatic set of numbers:

  • Forty-seven percent of all high school seniors, and 56 percent of those from low-income families, have not started applying to college

At this late stage of the year, almost at the end of the second week of November, that 47 percent number should be lower, even significantly lower. That's because of the traditional Early Action (EA) and Early Decision (ED) application deadlines of November 1 through November 15.

Of course, this has been anything but a traditional year for colleges. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, some colleges have extended their Early Action/Early Decision (EA/ED) application deadlines. For example, here are some schools with their original early deadlines, followed by the revised deadlines:

  • Babson College: Nov. 1 moved to Nov. 16
  • Brandeis University: Nov. 1 moved to Nov. 15
  • Cal State System: Nov. 30 moved to Dec. 4
  • Cornell University: Nov. 1 moved to Nov. 16
  • Duke University: Nov. 1 moved to Nov. 16
  • Fordham University: Nov. 1 moved to Nov. 9
  • Penn State: Nov. 1 moved to Nov. 15
  • Tufts University: Nov. 1 moved to Nov. 17
  • University of Michigan: Nov. 1 moved to Nov. 16
  • Villanova University: Nov. 1 moved to Nov. 15
  • Williams College: Jan. 1 moved to Jan. 8

Some Geographic Areas More Impacted Than Others

Even with these extended deadlines, the lagging application numbers suggest, as Jaschik notes, "a reason for more colleges to step up outreach to potential students." Even schools with rolling admissions (no hard application deadlines) have been affected by the slowdown in applications.

Some other findings from the Niche survey reflect certain student attitudes that have contributed to the application delays:

  • Students in New England and the West Coast are furthest behind.

While there is no absolute rationale for this analysis, my theory is that seniors have been waiting to see how things develop for spring semester at their candidate colleges. It's well known that students dislike virtual learning, and because of that, many seniors are waiting to see how the colleges they are targeting will react post-Thanksgiving. Perhaps these two geographic areas are waiting because of their respective bounty of choices.

Will they continue virtual learning for spring semester, or will they bring (at least more) students back to campus, in light of the latest encouraging news about vaccine development and deployment? It's not hard to understand this reluctance to apply, let alone a commitment via Early Decision, under the current fluid circumstances.

  • Forty-two percent of students have not taken a standardized test, and 53 percent of low-income students have not. More than a third — 36 percent — of those who have taken a test still do not plan to submit a score with their application.

The pandemic has made a shambles of standardized testing. Also, the "test optional" tsunami has given potential applicants who are excellent students but marginal test takers a viable option. There are 1,665+ accredited, four-year colleges and universities with ACT/SAT-optional testing policies for Fall 2021 admissions. The one-two punch of COVID-19 and test-optional policies have contributed significantly, almost exclusively, to the shortfall in test takers.

Students Cite Stress, Particularly Over College Finances

  • An overwhelming majority (92 percent) of students are feeling fear or anxiety right now. Their top concern is being able to afford college.

Prospective collegians don't know what the future holds because of the uncertainty of how the "traditional" college experience will unfold in the coming year. Also, the student loan debt situation isn't getting any better with $1.6 billion in loans still out there either being paid on or ignored. I think anxiety trumps fear in high school seniors. Uncertainty breeds anxiety, and there's a lot of that these days, but I haven't seen the element of fear in seniors I know.

  • A majority of students (56 percent) have attended a virtual event by a college. Of those who have, 79 percent are interested in attending another one.

And relatedly:

  • Most students (79 percent) aren't willing to participate in a virtual event that lasts longer than 45 minutes.

Under the current circumstances, how else are students going to learn (sort of) firsthand about a college? They can't "trod the sod," as I like to say, so they have to try to imagine what a campus and its facilities and resources are like via computer. The high percentage of students interested in attending additional events is a strong indicator of college interest, but that number is challenged by the lag in applications. Frankly, I'm surprised that so many surveyed students will sit for a 45-minute event.

  • Nearly half of students (48 percent) said the communications they've been receiving from colleges and universities all look and sound the same. Only 8.1 percent said they feel very personal.

With few exceptions, this is what solicited seniors have been experiencing for years, maybe decades. It's what I call "viewbook verbiage." One senior I know told me, "Once you've seen one college's professor teaching her class on the grass, under a big tree by the pond, you've seen them all." The impersonal nature is due to mass mailing. Occasionally (the "few exceptions" I mentioned), an admissions staff member will contact a senior directly and personally, but that's rare, especially during the current crisis, with staff and budget cuts taking their toll.

  • The pandemic has not drastically changed how close to home students plan to enroll. Less than 1 percent of students plan to enroll online, and 40 percent say that distance from home doesn't matter in their decision making. Of those who did have a preference, only just over a third wanted to stay under two hours from home.

According to this survey, almost no one wants to go to college online, even though there are many well-known colleges offering excellent degree programs in almost every discipline, including the hard sciences and engineering. I covered the rankings of some of these programs in a recent article.

If 40 percent don't care about how far away from home they go to college, then over half do have some concern. Community colleges are suffering an enrollment drop, similar to four-year colleges, thanks to COVID-19.

My prediction is that once the pandemic has subsided, either through mass vaccination or herd immunity (or both), both online degree programs and community colleges will see increases in enrollment due to high schoolers' and their families' reluctance to enter into significant long-term debt caused by high-priced, traditional colleges. The trend toward vocational education reflects an awakening to practicality and frugality.

While considering all that's happening right now, one thought occurs to me. The year 2020 may be the "reset" year when prospective college students' attitudes and priorities change. The effects of peer pressure, family economics and personal preferences may have a permanent impact on higher education. Enrollment across the board is currently down. What will that number look like in years to come?