How the coronavirus pandemic has changed college admissions

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The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted life for communities around the world and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, with experts suggesting that social distancing measures will be a necessary part of confronting the pandemic for several more months if not years

For students setting their sights on a college education, life uncertainly continues on. High schoolers must navigate online classes, build resumes without access to standardized testing or extracurriculars and must decide where they'd like to attend without visiting campuses. 

And many experts believe these seismic shifts will have long-lasting impacts.

Here's how the college admissions process has been impacted due to coronavirus. 

Classes — and grades — have changed

So far, 19 states have closed all public schools through the end of the year school year and many more are expected to follow suit as state leaders evaluate coronavirus's threat to public health.

These closures mean millions of students are getting an education online for the first time, upending the only learning and college-preparatory structure students have ever known and disproportionately impacting low-income students who may not have access to the technology necessary for online learning. Some schools are reporting that fewer than half of their students are actually participating in online learning.

Ann Keating, a college advisor at Mooresville High School in Iredell County, North Carolina, says that her first priority is maintaining relationships with students virtually, adding that she is especially concerned about high school juniors whose grades are particularly important for college admissions.

"The switch to virtual learning is a different skill-set for teachers and for students, and student success now kind of depends on if their learning style meshes well with the self-directedness of online learning," she explains. "And a lot of high schools are continuing on with letter grades." 

But some schools in states from Virginia to New Mexico have decided to forgo letter grades entirely and instead embrace a simplified system in which students either pass or fail a class.

Without grades for the given semester, students who were hoping to make up for lackluster graders earlier in their high school careers will need to find new ways to stand out. Colleges will also likely need to find new ways to assess students' growth and to compare students, with and without grades, fairly. 

How coronavirus changed college for 14 million students
How coronavirus changed college for 14 million students

Standardized testing has stalled

Additionally, several SAT and ACT test dates have been canceled and postponed. According to The Washington Post, "1 million high school juniors are missing the chance this spring to get their first SAT score, and many others face uncertainty about when they can take the ACT."

In a press conference Wednesday, The College Board, the organization that administers the SAT, stated that they are committed to offering testing opportunities as soon as it is safe. The organization is aiming for the next test to be administered in-person in August and is preparing to roll out an online testing program in the event that schools do not open in the fall. The College Board, which also oversees AP exams, is allowing students to take those tests, which can help students earn college credit, online. 

Many colleges have announced they will not require impacted students to submit standardized test scores this year. On April 1st, The University of California college system, which enrolls some 280,000 college students each year, announced that it will not require standardized testing for students hoping to start college in the fall of 2021. 

Others have used this moment to test out test-optional policies that have become increasingly common over the past several years. For instance, Davidson College recently announced that it would not require standardized testing in response to the impacts of coronavirus on students as a part of a three-year pilot program. 

"There's already been a trend towards test-optional because more and more schools are recognizing some of the problems with standardized testing and some of the bias in there," Jeremy Alder founder and managing editor of College Consensus tells CNBC Make It. "I think this could definitely accelerate that trend."

"We support schools totally in whatever flexibility they decide," says David Coleman, chief executive officer of The College Board on the subject of schools going test-optional. 

Increased emphasis on volunteer work

Without letter grades or standardized testing, students must find new ways to impress colleges and colleges must find new ways to assess millions of applications. 

Historically, colleges have looked at extracurriculars as a way to better understand students beyond their letter grades, but these have also been curtailed because of coronavirus. 

"A lot of schools take extracurricular activities into account. They want to see what you're doing beyond school in terms of volunteer work and sports and all that," says Alder. "But those aren't really available right now, so students are going to have to be creative in finding ways to make themselves stand out."

Alder says that these circumstances will cause more students to spend time helping their communities address coronavirus and will cause colleges to consider these kinds of volunteer work even more seriously.

"In every crisis, there's an opportunity and I think for students who are willing to be creative and think outside the box, there are so many opportunities now to impact their community while they're in quarantine," he says. 

Deciding where to go

And finally, there are the high school seniors who have been making their final decisions about what college they want to attend during a worldwide pandemic. 

One of those seniors is Patrick Kelly from Fairfield, Connecticut who is deciding between three very different options. Kelly was given a scholarship and an invitation to the honors college at The University of Vermont, a public university in Burlington, Vermont with about 13,395 students. He was admitted into Boston College, a private catholic school just outside Boston of about 14,107 students that requires students to take theology classes. And he also got into St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico a private college of just 371 students in which the curriculum centers around reading all of history's "great books."

Each school offers a dramatically different experience but Kelly will not be able to visit them all. 

"The weirdest part of this admissions process is you can't visit, or sit in the dining halls or gauge what the students are like, or get a sense for the campus," says Kelly. "You hear a lot of stories from friends and family saying, 'You'll know which one's right because you'll go there and it'll feel like home.' And I don't want to sound like angry, but we've been robbed of that opportunity a little bit." 

He adds, "You can only read so many mission statements."

Fortunately, Kelly says that schools have been finding creative ways to keep prospective students engaged, mentioning virtual re-visit days and coordinated Zoom calls with students, administrators and professors.

Additionally, many colleges have extended their deadlines for students to decide which school they will attend and other schools have expressed that they will be flexible with students facing hard circumstances — even if they have not formally moved their deadlines.

An admissions representative for Boston College tells CNBC Make It that it has not moved its May 1st commitment deadline.

"We have not moved our deadline but students can submit a request for a deadline extension if it proves to be difficult timing," Kaitie Bessette, a program support generalist in UVM's admissions department tells CNBC Make It.  "We know that this is a really strange time to make a decision."

Long-lasting impacts

All of these changes will likely have a significant impact on how students apply for and attend college for years to come — even if social distancing measures subside.

"I imagine there'll a lot more students deferring college to take a gap year. And anecdotally, I know a lot of students who are reconsidering their choices and are more reluctant to go out of state for school and are thinking about staying closer to home," Alder says, also predicting a drop in college applications over the next few years.

"College admissions is going to look a lot different after all of this, maybe permanently." 

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