Digital recruitment, test-optional policies: Stopgaps for COVID-19 or lasting change?

During the pandemic, many colleges and universities have pivoted to digital recruitment tactics and test-optional admissions policies out of necessity, as COVID-19 complicated in-person campus visits and testing events. However, some admissions experts and advocates say they expect these tactics to persist well beyond the pandemic, given their popularity and potential to broaden access.    

Online recruitment tools extending schools’ reach, but digital divide persists

Unable to offer in-person events to help newly admitted students make enrollment decisions, many institutions and college counseling groups have been engaging families digitally this year—ramping up their social media presence, catering to multiple time zones, and reimagining traditional hallmarks of the recruitment process. 

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) this fall flipped its college fair to a virtual format, Higher Ed Dive reports. The September event attracted 30,000 students; participants met up with college representatives in online “rooms” to learn more about their schools. Having received positive feedback, NACAC is offering additional online fairs, some organized around interest areas or U.S. regions.

Campus tours also have gone digital. While emphasizing that filmed tours will never replace the feeling of being physically present on campus, enrollment professionals note how the virtual experience has evolved during the pandemic, with some institutions now live-streaming guided excursions.

Eager for interaction in this virtual environment, prospective college students also have become more receptive to institutions’ outreach, even phone calls, EAB Vice President Madeleine Rhyneer says.  “There’s a return to a much more personal approach that’s very targeted to this generation,” Rhyneer told Higher Ed Dive. “They want to know, you’re talking to me, not 300 other people.”

“The digitization of this process is here to stay,” Angel Pérez, NACAC’s CEO, told Higher Ed Dive, noting that the online alternatives necessitated by the pandemic have allowed applicants to connect with colleges, faculty, and students to which they otherwise might not have access. 

Still, college access experts caution that online outreach may be missing students who lack internet access and devices—a “digital divide” that has only worsened during the pandemic.

Some selective institutions extending test-optional policies

Institutions’ decisions to temporarily stop requiring applicants to submit their SAT and ACT scores also may outlast the pandemic, observers say. Citing the many barriers to taking standardized tests amid COVID-19, two-thirds of four-year colleges and universities had adopted test-optional policies for the fall 2021 admissions cycle. 

More than half of four-year programs have said they’ll extend that to include fall 2022, Inside Higher Ed reports, noting that a number of highly selective colleges in recent days have announced they will extend their test-optional policies. “The recent test-suspension extensions appear to be the vanguard of a national movement to maintain ACT/SAT optional policies at highly selective colleges and universities at least through the fall 2022 admission cycle,” said Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

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