College During COVID: Everything Has Changed
Much like just about everything else in life, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way students are applying for and getting into college.
“Testing, college admission, financial aid, so many of those things are simply changing due to the effects of COVID,” said Rob Franek, editor in chief at the Princeton Review.
One of the big changes is many schools are going to a test-optional process when evaluating students for admission. However Franek says test-optional does not mean test-prohibited.
“I just don’t want students and their parents to be hoodwinked in the process," he said. "The SAT and ACT, even for test-optional schools, is still valuable. Sometimes as a gatekeeper for admission, but even more importantly for scholarship dollars, tied to performance and GPA, but combined. Cross those streams between G.P.A. and (test) scores and it still unlocks scholarship dollars, outside of family need, just based on academic prowess.”
And given the state of the economy and the fact that many families are still dealing with unemployment, scholarship dollars and student financial aid is going to be important.
“Aid from the federal level will likely stay the exact same. And this is a tremendous amount of student aid (that is) available, including access to student loans, whether they are Stafford loans or otherwise. So those things will be there. We don’t yet know what is going to happen by way of state underwriting for scholarship dollars and so on. The difficulty, and this is the ‘sooth saying’ here, the difficulty is not knowing what schools can accommodate. What can schools themselves, colleges and universities, pony up as scholarship dollars.”
Some schools are using those scholarship dollars as a sort of discount for classes that may be online instead of in-person. But there are some schools that don’t have the financial resources to offer those discounts. Already some small liberal arts colleges in the northeast and Midwest have closed or been swallowed up by larger institutions. Rob Franek says that trend may continue.
“Small schools (and) large schools are dealing with difficult issues. Shrinking student population, student populations coming from different recruitment areas than that school traditionally recruited from. So we understand that those factors were there pre-pandemic , but factor in a global pandemic and many schools are going to either sadly close, merge with others schools, or, and this is where the silver lining could come in, think very differently about how they are tackling their undergraduate education and their offerings. Whether they be a continuous hybrid model as we move forward, which we may well see.”
“There are school like the Southern New Hampshire University that have prided itself and really created its structure around online learning and have profited from that," said Franek, "and have profited many students because of that for many years. But again, they are one of the leaders in offsetting that tuition even now. Nearly 100% online, but bringing their tuition down by a staggering 30 to 35%.”
However many students are just not ready for a totally online college experience, or even a hybrid model. Ron Lieber, a financial journalist who writes the Your Money column for the New York Times says the traditional in-person college experience still has a strong attraction for students, pandemic or no pandemic.
“Everyone was sent home in March of 2020. (and there were) a lot of upset people, a lot of people wanting not just room and board refunds but tuition refunds" said Lieber. "But then September rolls around of 2020, and all of these undergraduates come flocking back to school to the extent that schools were willing to have them. And to me, that was clarifying. Because a couple of the biggest reasons to go to school (are) the education and the kinship. Finding your people, finding your friends, finding your mentors. That was all stripped away. People were not learning all that much in these Zoom-rooms last Spring, and they certainly weren’t getting to spend quality time with their friends and their mentors. So people were willing to come back, and they were willing to come back and pay exactly what they paid the year before even though the experience since this fall has been extremely compromised.”
The pandemic has changed the college experience in just about every way. The traditional campus visit that students and their families make to tour a prospective new school has become a virtual experience, and the way colleges recruit student athletes has changed from Division 1 through Division 3. “The recruitment for students, even for Division 3 schools, non-scholarship generating schools are dictating so many of the best policies for traditional admission recruitment" said Rob Franek. "So we understand that the relationships that we are talking about through the admission office also happen through the athletics office in any number of schools.”
Given all the time and resources that have gone into the changes that colleges and universities have had to institute over the past 11 months, Franek says a lot of those changes will probably stick around.
“We are not going to unlearn what we’ve learned over the last 10 or 11 months of time. We likely are going to have, after the pandemic crests, some sort of online learning that is going to be with us moving forward. We’re likely not going to go back to the way things were prior to March of 2020.”
Franek also says adapting to those changes could help students after they graduate and head into what could be a more virtual business world. You can read more about all of the changes the pandemic has made in the college application process in Rob Franek's new book “College Admissions During COVID – How to Navigate the New Challenges in Admissions, Testing, Financial Air and More”.