How is COVID-19 Affecting College Admissions?

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The novel coronavirus has wreaked havoc on businesses, communities, and institutions, leaving instability and uncertainty in its wake.

Everybody has been affected to some degree, and students are no exception. If anything, high school upperclassmen and other prospective students applying to colleges have been hit particularly hard, as many of them no longer have a clear path to school. Between SAT postponements and campus visit cancellations, many college hopefuls find themselves left in the lurch.

Standardized Admissions Tests

For high school juniors and seniors, standardized tests are a major milestone on the path to a college education. Many colleges and universities in the U.S. require students to submit SAT or ACT scores for admission, and those tests are usually administered in the spring and summer. In 2018, nearly two million college hopefuls worldwide took the SAT, and 1.9 million took the ACT.

However, both tests have been cancelled to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus. The College Board, which administers the SAT, has also had to adjust how it administers advanced placement (AP) exams, which allow incoming college students to receive college credit for courses they took in high school.

SAT and ACT

The Current Situation

The SAT first canceled tests in response to COVID-19 back in February, when they announced that March tests for Chinese students would not take place as scheduled. As the situation deteriorated, The College Board also canceled tests across Europe and the United States, including both May testing dates and April make-ups for the postponed March tests. June testing dates are still scheduled as normal. Similarly, the ACT has rescheduled its April tests to June, including the exams for international applicants.

However, with testing dates constantly moving and some high school students nearing graduation, many colleges and universities have temporarily waived SAT and ACT admission requirements. This includes private schools, like Boston University, and public universities, such as the University of Oregon.

Future Impacts

Domestically, the SAT and the ACT were falling out of favor even before COVID-19. 2019 saw a record number of colleges and universities drop SAT and ACT scores from their admission requirements, citing alleged economic and racial biases in test results.

This may have been sparked by the National Association for College Admission Counseling's (NACAC) 2018 report "Defining Access: How Test-Optional Works," which explored how test-optional admissions policies affect admissions demographics. The report found that universities that adopted test-optional policies also saw an increase in applications, accepted more students from marginalized groups, and experienced no measurable drop in student performance.

However, advocates of admissions tests claim that waiving testing requirements leads to worse student outcomes, in part because admitted students are less prepared for college. They point out that studies like Defining Access have small sample sizes and have been mostly limited to private schools. Now, with so many colleges and universities adopting temporary test-optional policies, admissions researchers will suddenly have a much larger body of data to use, which could prompt more colleges to abandon the SAT and ACT.

AP Testing

Of course, the SATs aren't the only concern for The College Board. After surveying 18,000 advanced placement students, The College Board found that 91% still wanted to take their AP exams, even with their high schools physically closed. In response, AP tests have moved online — and gotten shorter.

Normally, AP tests are administered during the school day and last 2-3 hours. This year, the exams will take 45 minutes and will only cover material taught through March, to ensure that students without access to online education are still fairly represented. The tests can be taken on any internet-capable device, including smartphones.

The College Board is also offering free online resources, including practice tests and remote learning assistance. For the latest information, check out the official site for AP testing.

Challenges for Students

An often overlooked side-effect of high school closures in the wake of COVID-19 is that students no longer have easy access to school counselors. With so much admissions uncertainty, students need help navigating the college landscape now more than ever, especially for first-generation college-goers — and they can't get it.

Financial Aid

Financial aid is another big concern for upperclassmen. Many scholarships require scores from the PSAT, which is typically taken by high school juniors. Like the SATs, PSAT testing dates have been canceled or postponed while schools are closed. Many scholarships depend on the PSAT to help them find qualified candidates — especially students from underrepresented groups. Without access to the PSAT, many deserving students will also lose access to scholarships.

For college seniors, a major concern is the Federal Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA), which determines eligibility for federal loans and grants, as well as some college-specific scholarships. Despite recent pushes to simplify the process, the FAFSA can be challenging to navigate, especially for first-generation college students, who are often most in need of aid. In 2018, only 60.9% of students successfully completed the application; without help from school counselors, that number may dip further.

Other Challenges

Another major impact of COVID-19 on college admissions is how students are approaching their acceptance decisions. Typically, students receive acceptance letters early in the year, then spend their spring breaks visiting campuses to help them choose a school.

This year, even before most campuses were officially closed, a study from EAB found that schools were already seeing drops in requests for campus visits. In response, many colleges began to offer virtual campus tours, hoping to still entice enough students to meet their enrollment quotas.

The coronavirus is also affecting how high school seniors think about their top-choice schools. A recent national survey found that 25.7% of inbound freshmen were reconsidering their college choices.

Top cited reasons include wanting to be closer to home and being afraid of contracting the virus while on campus. However, most students were still planning to attend physical schools; only 8.2% said they'd recently started considering online education.

How Universities are Responding

For universities, admissions are a numbers game. Collecting tuition is often essential for keeping budgets balanced; fewer admissions means less funding, and less funding means budget cuts or even closure in extreme cases.

To ensure they meet budgetary needs, schools often admit more students than they can support, hoping to yield more acceptances and meet tuition funding goals.

With COVID-19, many schools are seeing lower rates of acceptance, especially from students who are struggling financially. Students often work service industry jobs, which have largely disappeared in the face of shelter-in-place orders, and dependent students over the age of 18 were left out of Congress's economic stimulus package. In response, colleges and universities are pushing back acceptance deadlines and admitting larger numbers of students, hoping for a higher yield, but they're operating without a roadmap in this unique situation.

To compensate for past tuition shortages, U.S. colleges and universities have admitted more international students, with international tuition typically being much higher than tuition for domestic students. Many schools are using this strategy for the current crisis, too, though foreign enrollment rates are unpredictable. And with the United States now topping the list of countries with the most cases of coronavirus, foreign enrollment may drop.

Resources

If you're trying to navigate the newly choppy waters of college admissions, you may find these resources helpful.

NACAC's College Admissions Status Update tool

To find out what admissions changes have been made at specific schools, check out this tool from NACAC. Students can search by school name or filter by location, admissions deadlines, or campus visitation status.

Updates from The College Board

The College Board keeps this page fresh with the latest news about testing date cancelations and postponements for the SAT and PSAT. The page also includes links to free, online study resources. Also check out this page for AP testing updates.

ACT Official Updates

The ACT is offering real-time updates on changes to its testing dates and locations. You can also find answers to frequently asked questions.