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The Darkest Hour is Just Before the Dawn

It was already a tough year to be a Dean of Admission.

Demographic inevitability finally arrived, and last year was the first year that colleges found themselves competing for a diminished pool of qualified, full-paying applicants. As a result, a number of small, regional colleges (particularly in the Midwest and Northeast) closed their doors or merged with other, healthier institutions. More than half of the four-year colleges and universities failed to make their freshman enrollment targets.
Against this backdrop, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a suit against the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC) in September for, essentially, repressing free and fair trade; specifically, the DOJ took exception with the practice of colleges requiring applicants to make an enrollment deposit at only one college by May 1st each spring. Before the DOJ lawsuit, colleges recognized the sanctity of the May 1st deposit day, and they refrained from trying to lure elsewhere-deposited students to attend. When the deep pockets of the DOJ made any resistance to the suit by NACAC futile, NACAC re-wrote its Best Practices to suggest, rather than mandate, that colleges still respect the May 1st deadline. The issue consumed the college admissions world last fall, with many colleges fearing that a “Wild West” landscape of poaching and incentivizing would emerge to wreak havoc on the stability of the already- fragile enrollment management situation at colleges and universities across the country.

There was a third factor that had been keeping college enrollment managers up at night—the shrinking of the international student applicant pool. For years, international students were a treasured demographic for college admissions deans; they are generally full-pay students and bring a much-desired geographic and cultural diversity. China, in particular, exported tens of thousands of students to American institutions of higher learning. Over the last few years, these institutions started to notice a decline in international applicants, particularly from China, causing a robust revenue stream to dry up.

And then came COVID 19.

Colleges sent their students home. They cancelled admissions events and in-person applicant visits. Standardized testing dates were cancelled. The AP exam format and administration was altered. All of a sudden, colleges are faced with the lost revenue of housing and board refunds. All of a sudden, many colleges’ enrollment targets are once again in jeopardy.

The last month has seen a dizzying pace of admission and financial aid policy changes as colleges seek to reassure high school seniors and juniors. I have been moved by their genuine desire to serve their current and future students. I have been impressed by the creative ways they have sought to do this. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention!

So what does all this upheaval mean for high school students? What about the senior who thought she was going to her dream school and is now being told by her parents that she needs to go to the less expensive option, or the closer option? What about the junior who planned to take the SAT and ACT? Or who was going to be the captain of the lacrosse team? Or who had secured a killer internship for the summer? Are they now to be less-compelling college applicants next year because of these lost opportunities?

To the juniors, college reps will tell you that your application to college isn’t going to be diminished and that you will not be held responsible for things you cannot control. There are no high school students playing sports this season. No high school kids doing internships. No one taking the SAT or ACT. You are not falling behind relative to anyone else. Everybody is on “pause.”

High school seniors have a different set of concerns: How can I make a final college decision if I can’t visit? Now I can’t afford the college I thought I was attending! This whole pandemic thing has made me realize that I don’t want to go far away from home…or attend college in a city…To these seniors, college reps will say reach out to us! We aren’t travelling now and would welcome your calls. Tell us how your financial circumstances have changed and we’ll try and help! If seniors engaged the college application process authentically and with an open mind, then they will have excellent, affordable choices among the acceptances they received. Or they can explore taking a year off before going to college.

This turmoil is a real opportunity for all constituents in the college application process—students, parents, and colleges—to step back and re-evaluate what’s important. Students and parents can ask themselves what has this whole episode shown me about myself? What do I value? What’s important to me in a college? And they can let the answers to these questions guide the search. Colleges can debate the usefulness of standardized tests in their application process (already the number of colleges deciding to become test-optional grows with each passing day). They will be challenged to deliver an exceptional experience to their students at an accessible price. They will have to be more nimble in their recruitment practices.

If this virus has anything to teach us, it’s that we are all in this together. And together, we can make the college application process—and ultimately the college experience—a truly transformational journey.