College Decision Day less momentous as COVID-19 upends admissions

May 1, National College Decision Day, came and went this year with far less fanfare than usual as many colleges extended their deposit deadlines—and many high school students remained undecided about their fall plans. “At this point, May 1 is just another spring Friday,” Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, told Inside Higher Ed.

Recognizing that the COVID-19 pandemic has left families facing a new financial landscape, health concerns, and other hardships, more than 400 U.S. universities that typically require students to commit by May 1 have officially shifted that deadline to June 1 or beyond. Others say they’re granting extensions liberally, but on a case-by-case basis. Greg W. Roberts, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, for instance, told The Washington Post that the school kept its May 1 deadline but has been “very accommodating” and granted about 100 extensions.

More than 700 schools still have openings

As of May 5, more than 700 U.S. colleges and universities still had openings for first-year or transfer students, as well as available housing and financial aid, according to an update published annually by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). NACAC listed 419 institutions with openings at this time last year, and less than 300 a few years back, offering “another indication that this year will be challenging for many colleges,” Inside Higher Ed writes.

Even colleges that have filled their classes are feeling uncertain, however, given that students still may not show up in the fall. In a recent Art & Science Group poll of 1,171 high school seniors, 12 percent of students who had made a deposit at a four-year school said they had since changed their plans and would no longer enroll. Some students also submit deposits to multiple institutions.

Colleges, counselors fielding questions about deferrals

College admissions teams and counselors also report an increase in the number of families asking about the option to defer enrollment by a year. “We expect to see an increase in gap years and, actually, gap semesters,” Angel Perez, NACAC’s newly named chief executive, told The Hechinger Report

Inside Higher Ed reports that colleges’ deferral policies vary—some grant year-long delays “almost automatically” while others require “a plan for a meaningful alternative,” whether that’s employment, volunteering, travel, military service, or another reason to defer. Highly selective schools with extensive wait lists may be especially comfortable granting gap years: Cornell University has said it will be “very, very generous with our deferral options” this year, as has Williams College, which told students they “should have every expectation that your [gap year] request will be approved.”

NACAC ethics changes further complicating the calendar

Further throwing the admissions calendar into question, NACAC has removed parts of its professional code of ethics in response to pressure from the Justice Department—changes that clear the way for schools to offer incentives for early-decision candidates, recruit students who have committed to other colleges or universities, and recruit students who are already enrolled at other four-year institutions.

Related: Concerns about fall enrollment give rise to a new recruiting environment >

Inside Higher Ed points out that while COVID-19 has created extreme circumstances, the NACAC changes meant that “May 1 had already lost a lot of its luster.” In addition, National College Decision day pertains mostly to selective four-year institutions; less-selective four-year colleges and two-year institutions tend to have more rolling processes.

Colleges reopening admissions, turning to wait lists

Given the difficult recruiting environment—and how much life has changed since colleges closed their application windows—at least four private colleges have decided to completely reopen their admissions process and accept new applications, writes Inside Higher Ed. The colleges appear to be targeting students who live nearby, recognizing that many high school seniors are reluctant to enroll far from home with the pandemic’s trajectory still uncertain.

Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, for instance, has reached out to 20,000 high school seniors who live within a 50-mile radius of the school. Kentucky-based Centre College also has reopened admissions. “In a year when so much is fluid, we think it is important for fairness and access to be transparent and public about working with late applicants, rather than having a process that is only available for those who ask,” said Bob Nesmith, the college’s dean of admission and financial aid.

Other colleges, meanwhile, are admitting students off their waitlists sooner, and more liberally, than in past years, The New York Times reports. “People are coming off wait lists all over the place right now,” said Debra Felix, who runs a student advising service and was once a Columbia University admissions director. “It tells me that the yeses are coming back very slowly, or people are getting back to them quickly with noes.”

Cornell, for instance, extended offers to 99 waitlisted students during the last week of April this year, rather than waiting until after May 1 as in past years. Similarly, the University of Virginia began offering spots to students on its wait list in April, earlier than usual, according to The Washington Post.

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