A Year of Chaos and Flexibility

For recruiting and judging students, colleges face the reality that they may not be able to visit high schools or rely on their rubrics. The outcomes are expected to be particularly bad for disadvantaged students.

July 20, 2020
 
iStock.com/Orbon Alija

College admissions officers are not done worrying about the class that is supposed to enroll in the fall. Will students come? Will they come if a college is online only? The situation and the resulting models are changing daily.

But in the last week, a new issue has emerged for colleges: high schools. Despite President Trump's insistence that schools should be fully open in the fall, school districts aren't listening. The push was most evident in California -- the Los Angeles and San Diego school districts said they will be online only in the fall. San Francisco's district said, "Our fall semester will begin with distance learning." Then on Friday, California governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, announced that most California school districts would be closed during the fall.

Schools are making similar announcements elsewhere. At least the first six weeks of the coming school year will be online for students in Houston. For Atlanta, it's at least nine weeks online. Palm Beach, Fla., and Mesa, Ariz., are also starting online.

And those schools planning to be open are not going to be normal. Some schools are planning for students to attend only one or two days a week. Most are canceling any school visitors.

For college admissions officers, these decisions have profound consequences.

Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Denver, said that his staff typically visits 700 high schools each fall and is now assuming it will be a no-travel autumn. The university is developing virtual programs, but that's easier said than done.

There is also the question of how to evaluate students who will be having an anything-but-normal semester -- for the second semester in a row.

Kristin R. Tichenor, the new vice president for enrollment at Wentworth Institute of Technology, said it will be important to remember that "holistic admissions review means reviewing candidates in context." Most colleges have rushed to go test optional or test blind next year, but that's only part of what she's talking about.

"We have to put our traditional rubrics to the side," Tichenor said. "If a student is working hard to stay healthy, taking care of siblings," that should count, she said.

"In this age of so-called snowflakes," living through COVID-19 "is a character-building experience for all of us," she said.

Recruiting

Aimee Kahn-Foss, director of admission at Agnes Scott College, said, "We’re doing as much as we can to support our students from diverse backgrounds during this difficult time and understand the significant challenges they are facing. While we always try to meet students where they are as much as possible, the new direction of recruitment is allowing us to reach out to students who might be missed in our travel and recruitment efforts."

Specifically, that means hosting virtual events for specific groups of students, including "areas where we generally can’t travel," Kahn-Foss said. "We’re also working to provide general admission and financial aid information to students and parents who might have less access to counselor support than in previous years; we’re hosting a series of workshops on topics like doing a virtual college search, completing college applications and essays, filing the [Free Application for Federal Student Aid], and preparing for admission interviews."

If Agnes Scott's efforts are successful, they will reach many students who don't apply to Agnes Scott, but that's OK, Kahn-Foss says. The college wants to be present in those schools where counselors don't have the time to spend with students.

Jack Miner, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Cincinnati, said he hasn't "completely ruled out travel" for his team, but "it's more of whether there will be a place to travel to."

So that means looking to make virtual programs "for prolonged engagement" instead of a quick look at Cincinnati. He said the university is planning a series of webinars that cover different topics -- how to write an admissions essay, housing on campus and so forth.

To keep students engaged, Cincinnati is going to offer a point system and gifts for those who attend several webinars. The gifts will just be Cincinnati swag, but Miner said the university wants to encourage students to attend more than one program.

To reach low-income and disadvantaged students, he said, the university is relying on its strong relationships with high school counselors, who will be working remotely.

PlatformQ, which helps colleges with videos and interactive (but remote) campus experiences, ran a webcast on Wednesday called "Farewell, Fall Travel?" with speakers from Babson College, Western Connecticut State University, and the Universities of California, Santa Barbara; Missouri at Kansas City; and Notre Dame. The answer to the question posed by the title was yes. Only Babson has even the possibility of fall travel, and that was just in Massachusetts.

At California State University at Northridge, Carmen Ramos Chandler, a spokeswoman, said that the university was worried about recruiting disadvantaged students but was confident that programs like TRIO and GEAR UP would "mediate the effects of technology and help to build a level of capacity and comfort with online settings that was not there a few years ago."

She also listed a number of other efforts Northridge is starting: Zoom sessions in English and Spanish, advising by phone, and live chats with outreach counselors.

Mary B. Marcy, president of Dominican University of California, said her university is also using Zoom meetings -- set up by Dominican and by high schools. "We have been assuming that even high schools that are offering in-person instruction may not allow visitors to campus, so we had already been developing alternative outreach plans," she said.

Recognizing that many low-income students rely on phones for access to the internet, she said "most students have phones and can access Zoom and our website even if they don't have ready access to a laptop."

Stefanie D. Niles, vice president for enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University, said that in many ways, the challenge colleges face this year "isn't a new problem, but it is exacerbated by our current reality."

For example, she said "there is a constant Catch-22 type of situation with rural schools. Many colleges don't visit these schools, as they are much less likely to send students to our campuses. But if we never take the time to share opportunities for education and financial assistance that are available, these students will continue not to enroll."

She said she's "planning for a largely (but maybe not exclusively) virtual fall recruitment season."

Evaluating Students

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said, "Colleges are generally aware of the digital divide between socioeconomic groups" and "will need to work closely with their partners in K-12 education to understand the contours of academics, grading and access during this admission cycle."

Of more significance, he said "institutions are also aware that traditional measures will not yield results that are consistent across schools or students, and will not be comparable to previous years. We anticipate that institutions will adapt admission requirements, as many have already done by going test optional, and procedures for interpreting high school records in the coming months. Flexibility will be a key ingredient, particularly at large universities, as will utilizing more holistic methods to allow for contextual consideration of each student’s circumstances."

Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said, "I think the word that comes to mind about college admissions this fall is uncertainty. The combination of high schools going virtual, pass/fail grades again being a possibility, challenges in taking SAT or ACT tests, the inability to visit and recruit at high schools or fairs, and not being able to host visits of prospective students makes traditional recruiting plans completely obsolete."

Despite advances in technology, "the admissions profession is very much a face-to-face endeavor, and admissions offices are scrambling to develop virtual ways to engage with potential students," he said.

Reilly continued, "I think you'll see continued flexibility by admissions offices in evaluating applicants who have difficulty meeting all the traditional requirements for admissions. And I think admissions officers are well aware of the digital divide many students will experience and will need to ensure that low-income students who lack online access don't get left out in a virtual admissions world."

One change most colleges have made is going test optional (or test blind) on admissions. But Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost of enrollment management at Oregon State University, published a blog post called "Congratulations. You’re Test Optional. Now What?"

While Boeckenstedt has long advocated for test-optional admissions, he wrote that many colleges may not have thought through all of the changes that go with it.

"You won’t have test scores for most students, in all probability," he wrote. "It’s possible only a tiny fraction of students will submit them. But you won’t really have grades to speak of, either: In spring 2020, some school districts moved to a pass/fail policy for spring of 2020. Some gave everyone a grade of 'A.' Some gave students the choice of pass/fail or a traditional letter grade. It’s now looking like fall 2020 could end up in much the same way as spring."

He added, "But even if we had traditional grades for everyone, do we think the learning from a Zoom class is the same thing as in a traditional class? Even fans of Zoom classes will have to agree we’ll see different results based just on instructional modality, than we would have if life had not been disrupted."

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