Searching for College During a Pandemic

By Bart Gummere, Associated Head of School for College Counseling & Alumni Relations

It is hard at this date not to think back a year.  We’d made the decision to move to remote classes—well ahead of many of our peer schools and residential colleges.  We naively believed we’d be able to return to school just after spring break. In plenty of time to help our seniors navigate their last weeks in the college process, culminating in their choosing a destination by May 1.  We all felt especially badly for this disruption to their special year and time.

I never dreamed that the then junior-year Class of 2021 would suffer even more disruption in their college search.  In retrospect, it has been a crazy, unendingly shifting world to navigate.  “My ACT test was cancelled.”  “I had a trip to visit colleges, but they are all closed to visitors.”  “My summer plans have been cancelled, will that hurt my application?”

Beyond what was happening to individuals in the process, the collective landscape is changing even more dramatically.  Eventually, almost every college and university dropped any standardized testing requirement.  Many of those have done so for the long term.  While causation is hard to prove, it seems likely that the dropping of testing requirements led to exploding application numbers at many of the nation’s most selective colleges.  MIT had a 66% increase.  UCLA is up 28% to a total of just under 140,000 applicants.  Meanwhile, many other colleges are facing declining enrollments and bleak financial pictures.

All residential colleges have struggled with whether to host students on campus, run classes online and what policies are necessary to keep their communities safe. If it is complicated for an independent day-school—and trust me, it is—it is exponentially more difficult for campuses that house thousands of young adults.

We’re still in the midst of the application cycle and it is too early to draw many conclusions.  However, the disruptions from the norms are already showing an impact. Without test scores, admission officers need to dig even more deeply into each file.  Many will admit privately that this is a good thing and it is very time consuming.  Enrollment managers count on being able to predict the aggregate behavior of their application pool.  This is especially difficult this year, and this will cause most to proceed cautiously.  They can’t afford to overenroll.  Even more, they can’t fall short of enrollment goals.  So—we expect fewer initial acceptances and many more offers of a waitlist.  There was a great article elaborating on this in the WSJ this week.  As an aside, Rick Clark is a wonderful person and a great follow on his blog.

While all this change and uncertainty has been challenging for our college counselors and students, I’m exceptionally proud of how each group has handled the year.  Our students have been persistent in their pursuit, working hard to understand each college even from distance.  Our counselors have worked endlessly to stay abreast of all the changes.  Maybe most important, counselors and students have remained positive throughout.  Not once have I heard a student lament their situation.  Admirably, they all recognize the relative privilege they enjoy, both in attending this school and in the college opportunities that lie ahead