Higher Ed In Limbo
By Niva Cohen
April and May are demanding months for high-school juniors and seniors planning to go to college, but this year, along with the typical overwhelming frenzy, students have to deal with the added stress of the coronavirus pandemic. Juniors, especially, are faced with uncertainty beyond not knowing where they will get in. The universities are in an equally tenuous position, as their admissions and educational routines have also been uprooted. Juniors, seniors, and schools themselves will have to shift how they think about the college process in order to overcome today’s extenuating circumstances.
As colleges have closed and sent students home, they have shown the utmost grace and empathy for their students’ situations -- at their own cost. To ensure that undergraduates would get home safely, schools have covered logistical fees, including international flights for those who did not have the money to buy last-minute tickets. Even though they still have to pay cooks who work at the dining halls, many universities have also refunded room and board fees. All of this pocket-emptying has put financial stress on colleges, especially those with smaller endowments; namely liberal arts colleges. Some of these schools are in danger of not reopening at all.
On the high school side of the equation, juniors are also struggling with how to tackle the daunting college application process in the face of previously unforeseen obstacles. When it is time to apply, students often want to see the schools they are considering. Now, they must pick potential colleges without having a chance to visit. For many, traveling to prospective universities is an eye-opening experience that provides clarity and direction. Seniors, too, cannot attend Accepted Students Days, leaving them to resolve indecision on a hunch. Furthermore, low-income high-schoolers, who already face hurdles, do not always have the devices and Internet required to attend online classes. This puts not only juniors, but freshmen and sophomores, at risk of falling behind, and it could be nearly impossible to catch up. Some high schoolers rely on junior year to improve their transcripts. Now, those in states that have swapped letter grades for a pass-fail system (because of the current situation) must find new ways to make up for a subpar performance in years passed.
Even if someone knows exactly where he or she wants to apply, and has the grades to get in, everyone has to deal with the lack of SAT/ACT testing. According to the Washington Post, “one million high school juniors are missing the chance this spring to get their first SAT score.” The College Board is offering AP tests online for college credit, but even if they did the same with the SAT, it could disadvantage those without access to powerful technology, setting up yet another roadblock for low-income students.
The U.S. is not the only country in which high schoolers rely on SATs. All over the world, the coronavirus has caused cancellations, including in China, which provides U.S. schools with one-third of their international students. If schools decide to lift SAT/ACT score requirements, there is still the matter of TOEFL and IELTS tests, which check international students’ English comprehension. Schools cannot as easily lift the demand for these tests, as it is essential that students in American universities be able to speak English proficiently.
The alternative, however, could be worse. Requiring tests for international students that many are unable to complete could mean a drop in applications from outside the country. In any case, 36% of Chinese students who had planned to study abroad are now reconsidering because of the virus, a study by the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association reported in February. These students might instead look to online programs, which could change the culture of coming to college in the U.S. for years to come. Not only do international students offer cultural diversity on campuses, but universities rely on them to pay full tuition. Therefore, if they choose to stay home, it could further dent budgets.
Regarding the topic of SAT and ACT testing, the National Association of College Admissions Counseling advised schools to lighten their application requirements. Indeed, institutions nationwide (among them, all University of California schools) have begun to remove the need for juniors to have these scores. This could change the landscape of admissions, as students’ aptitude for test-taking does not necessarily correlate to their overall qualifications; those weaker at standardized tests may have an easier time matriculating, perhaps displacing those who are stronger in this area.
Although it seems as though all of this confusion is purposeless, it could ultimately yield benefits. Jeremy Alder, the founder of College Consensus, said about loosening SAT requirements that “there’s already been a trend toward test-optional because more and more schools are recognizing some of the problems with standardized testing and some of the bias in there.” Maybe the coronavirus will give schools the motivation and the opportunity to institute more progressive policies. Students, too, will change how they think about college. Without an emphasis on letter grades and test scores, they must find new ways to stand out, which could lead to an increased stress on volunteer work. Because of the devastation that coronavirus has wrought, more volunteering could strengthen and rebuild affected communities. Despite the grimness and confusion of this reality, institutions and students alike could very well find silver linings.
The college application process runs on a strict schedule. Coronavirus is disrupting this routine, leaving universities clueless as to how to proceed. The silver lining is that social change often only comes when someone, or something, stirs the pot, making people give up what is known for what could be better. Alternatively, after a period of limbo, the process could return to normal in a few years. This is uncharted territory, and juniors should remember that the colleges are on their side to figure out how to overcome present difficulties.