Getting into college has always been a numbers game but COVID-19 made it even more challenging. With the exception of large public schools and the country’s most elite private colleges, many colleges are seeing a decrease in applications. For those who opt-out, there are long-term consequences, including increased odds of never obtaining a degree and financial instability. This article tells us more about the current state of college admissions and its impact on students from less advantaged backgrounds.
While top-tier colleges are dealing with surges in applications, lesser-known ones have seen sharp declines.
The pandemic seems to have exposed and perhaps worsened a recent trend in college admissions: Selective universities have seen extraordinary interest from applicants this year, after waiving test scores. But smaller and less recognizable schools are extending deadlines and expanding outreach to attract students.
Students from less advantaged backgrounds are, predictably, being left behind.
The Common Application saw 10 percent more applications submitted by about 1 percent more students. But about 3 percent fewer students who would be the first in their families to go to college submitted applications this year. There was also a 2 percent drop in students who qualified for waived admissions fees — a proxy for family income.
“The inequities of access to education are in stark relief,” said Jenny Rickard, the chief executive of the Common App.
Selective and well-known schools like Haverford, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Penn State saw double-digit surges. Harvard set a record — a 42 percent increase — and the entire Ivy League had to extend its notification deadline by a week to give counselors time to read applications.
But many of the state schools and small private colleges that educate a vast majority of college students in the United States suffered double-digit drops. At Portland State in Oregon, freshman applications were down 12 percent and transfers down 28 percent. And applications fell by 14 percent at the State University of New York, the largest public college system in the country.
Many institutions outside the top tier have struggled for years. The pandemic has made it worse: American colleges and universities have endured losses of more than $120 billion and a few have even shut down permanently. For those that remain, landing fewer students — and losing critical tuition dollars — could mean further distress.
Many of those schools are also relying on a strong crop of applicants to help overcome falling undergraduate enrollment, down 4.4 percent in the fall semester. And many of those applicants transfer in from community colleges, which often provide low-income students the first step into higher education. But in the fall of 2020, community college enrollment fell by more than 20 percent.
“Institutions often have to make up the difference somehow, whether it’s by cutting services and programs and scaling back student supports and investments in student success and educational equity,” said Mamie Voight, the interim president at the Institute of Higher Education Policy, which researches and promotes college access.
For many low-income and first-generation students, those programs provide the tools, resources, and support that they need to complete their degrees.
A hazy road map for reopening
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance on schools was supposed to provide a pathway for schools to reopen quickly and safely, helping to fulfill a pledge by President Biden.
But it seems increasingly likely that it will have limited effect.
Many districts in states like Florida, Georgia, and Texas have already opened for full-time, in-person instruction and are unlikely to retreat from that even if the agency’s guidance suggests that they should. Other districts, including many on the West Coast, are so far down a path of extreme caution and risk-avoidance that the guidance is unlikely to change their course, either.
Experts say the guidance was so unclear on certain issues that people on both sides of the reopening debate can find support for their positions.
Helen Jenkins, an infectious disease expert at Boston University, cited the physical distancing between students as an example. The guidance says that in areas of low or moderate transmission — defined as 49 new cases or fewer per 100,000 people in a week — schools can be open for full in-person instruction at all grade levels. But it also recommends “physical distancing of 6 feet or more to the greatest extent possible.”
“I was left without knowing precisely what the distancing guidance was,” Jenkins said.
Even after the C.D.C. director, Rochelle Walensky made clear that, at low or moderate community transmission levels, a school’s inability to keep students six feet apart should not prevent full reopening, some districts balked at the idea.
San Francisco, which is not planning to welcome back any students until transmission in the community falls to 49 new cases or fewer per 100,000 people per week, is still planning to require six feet of distancing, meaning that students in some schools will most likely be able to attend only part-time.
Asked why, a spokeswoman said the district, which has not reached an agreement with its teachers’ union on how many hours a week of in-person instruction will be offered, had to consider what would make employees “feel safe.”