The coronavirus has touched nearly every facet of the way Americans live, learn, work, and interact. The higher education community, in particular, has felt its effects acutely.
As we approach May 1st, the day traditionally known as National College Decision Day, prospective students who are looking ahead at what college life will look like in Fall 2020 and beyond — especially those who are currently waiting on their admission results, waitlist status, and final financial aid packages — are (understandably) anxious. They’re facing a long list of concerns directly related to the global pandemic, and as a result, colleges and universities are having to quickly adjust to their needs in a variety of unprecedented ways.
We recently commissioned an informal study to take a closer look at the changing factors affecting the decision processes for today’s college students in light of the COVID-19 crisis. While this is by no means an exhaustive look at this complex subject that changes day by day, here are some of our key initial findings and our top recommendations for how .EDUs can adapt.
A Shape-Shifting Student Perspective
From the student point of view, the process of selecting, applying to, and choosing a college was already confusing and scary on so many levels, and it just became exponentially more so. The top factors we found that are affecting student decisions at this time include:
Increased application decision anxiety
With high school and college campuses going completely virtual for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester, prospective students still awaiting acceptance or rejection decisions are facing anxiety about those decisions being influenced by the pandemic. Final SAT dates were cancelled, extracurricular activities were suspended, AP testing went virtual, and many grading systems converted to pass-fail format — all of which adds up to many unknowns and “holes” in their transcripts, and a very unfamiliar application and acceptance process. It’s also worth noting that these issues will also carry over for current high school juniors just beginning the process for next year’s applications.
Steady study abroad aspirations, with some adjustments
Currently, the number of applications from prospective international students hoping to study in the United States are expected to remain largely unchanged because students are taking a long view of post-pandemic life and staying committed to achieving their long-term goals. While international students also do not seem deterred from studying abroad in other countries, 10% intend to postpone their enrollment, and 8% will opt to study in another country instead of the one they originally chose (Source: Study International).
The allure of more schooling
Some students are pivoting to consider pursuing an additional or advanced degree instead of having to graduate and search for employment during the threat of a possible post-COVID-19 recession.
Increasing discrimination fear factors
In the U.S., Chinese students account for the majority of the international student population — with a total of 369,548 Chinese students enrolled during the 2018/2019 academic year (Source: Statista). During the pandemic, many have faced discrimination/xenophobic backlash tied to the virus’s origination in the Chinese city of Wuhan, with increasing numbers requiring counseling and using hotlines to report this behavior. It’s currently uncertain whether this will become a deterrent for studying here.
What Schools Can Do to Help Students — and Themselves
Most .EDU teams are well aware that they need to redefine their approach to “business as usual” at this time, but they need help creating a plan that quickly and efficiently addresses the unique issues that students are facing. Our initial recommendations include:
Provide consistent reassurance
Colleges and universities can use their digital communication strategy to convey that while the admissions process will definitely look different this year than it typically does, the students’ chances of being admitted to their desired school and program will not be skewed due to COVID-19.
To allay student concerns, consider moving decision and deposit deadlines for 2020 accepted applicants to June 1 or beyond, with similar measures for 2021 early action/early decision applicants, as well. Where possible, consider making admissions offers more attractive with larger scholarships and adjustments to how students are evaluated for financial aid to help keep admissions numbers strong. Take into consideration that their financial situation may have changed considerably over the past few months, especially if their parents were furloughed or laid off. Encourage students who fall into this category to revisit and update their FAFSA application and other documents related to financial assistance.
Across the board, keep your focus laser locked on communicating effectively with prospective students, offering them a host of virtual resources and orientation/new student events. Make sure they know who to contact to ask more questions, and make sure you provide answers promptly. In addition, maintain regular communications with those who have already accepted to ensure they have a solid understanding of how your school will handle the eventual lifting of restrictions and return to normal campus life.
Turn up the volume on safety messaging
Especially for prospective students of Chinese descent, create clear and consistent messaging that shows that personal safety and fair treatment is a top priority at your school. Outline specific programs and measures that are either already in place or are currently in development, how to report problems, and how any future issues will be handled.
Lay out a realistic employment picture
Current students who will or should be graduating soon want reliable information about the likelihood of landing a job despite the possible recession ahead. This is the time to engage potential employers, host virtual job fairs, and enlist alumni who can help graduates envision the big picture of their career and take the logical next steps in finding a foothold in the job market.
Look for more on this topic in the weeks ahead as this situation continues to unfold.