Just as the pandemic has accelerated a shift to online learning, it is also reshaping the college application process. On a recent client webcast, Goldman Sachs’ John Mallory, who leads the firm’s Americas Private Wealth Management business, spoke with Amy Alexander and Sai Samboon of Bright Horizons College Coach about the trends shaping the college admissions process.
John Mallory: The pandemic has affected numerous aspects of higher education, from in-person classes and university endowments, to the college admissions cycle. Amy and Sai, given your experience working with colleges and families, what are some of notable changes you’re seeing in the application process?
Amy Alexander: One of the biggest changes we’re seeing now is in the area of standardized testing. Nearly every day, another university is announcing a move to a test-optional policy, meaning that scores from college entrance exams, such as the SAT or ACT, are not required for admission. While some schools have suspended exam requirements for the duration of the pandemic, others are taking a longer-term approach. Tufts University, for example, has said it was going test optional for the next three years.
Students should still do their research to determine each’s school testing requirements since there is so much differentiation and school policies are changing weekly—even daily. As a practical matter, we would recommend that students try to take the SAT or ACT—register, prepare and assume the test will still be required by some colleges—and prioritize taking those exams over subject matter placement tests. If you’re truly not able to take them, colleges will understand, but great to do if you can. If you have strong test scores, you can still submit them.
Sai Samboon: To give you a sense of how the move has accelerated, with more than 4,000 colleges in the US today, more than 1,000 of them are going test-optional or test-flexible. That means more than half of the top 100 liberal arts college are test optional. Universities could continue to soften their stance on testing, such as accepting results from later testing dates. Overall, universities are going to shift their emphasis to other elements of an applicant’s profile.
John Mallory: One of the questions that we are hearing from clients—and that comes up in my own household as well—is what should kids being doing during the lockdown to build up their experiences when many traditional opportunities have been put on hold?
Sai Samboon: For any student applying to college in the next few years, colleges will be putting a giant asterisk next to their experiences in the spring of 2020. Everyone is in the same boat and colleges understand that this situation is affecting all of us. At the same time, there are many ways for students to continue to do the things they love to do—and demonstrate their interest and progress in—even if they’re sheltering at home.
Amy Alexander: While many in-person summer camps, pre-college programs, travel, internships, and sports training have been canceled, there are still enriching ways that teens can positively impact their community, grow academically and personally, and continue to thoughtfully prepare for college. For example, they can check out their local cultural, service and faith-based organizations to see if they can volunteer for service-related opportunities. At a time when many high schools are forgoing letter grades, students can strengthen their college application by taking a graded academic summer class. If your teen is interested in STEM activities, they can cook a dinner inspired by different science-based diets, or create a virtual science project for kids in the neighborhood. There are plenty of opportunities for those interested in the arts and culture as well, such as virtual museum tours, online lectures and virtual opportunities to practice a foreign language. And student athletes should work with their high school and club coaches to get home workouts and strategies for next season.
John Mallory: How has the pandemic, with its economic impact and travel restrictions, affected the pool of college applicants?
Sai Samboon: International students represent a significant percentage of the student population at US universities. Given the restrictions on travel and delays in processing student visas, many international students aren’t able to accept or have delayed their admission offers for this fall—and this is causing a huge domino effect. Facing tuition shortfalls, since many international students tend to pay full tuition, we’re seeing some colleges admit many more students off of their wait lists—and at a faster pace—than they have historically.
Amy Alexander: The pandemic will also sharply compress the time that students have in the fall to apply for early decision or early action programs—which, depending on the school, are binding. We could see a difficult fall semester for many high school seniors because they will be rushing to get in their applications under tighter deadlines. In some cases, we could see more colleges offer early decision II options — which essentially allow students to wait until later in the admissions cycle to claim their allegiance to a particular school. And just last month, for example, Princeton University dropped its non-binding early action application deadline due to COVID-19 and will only offer one application deadline for the 2020-2021 cycle.
John Mallory: One of the themes we’ve seen across a variety of industries is that the pandemic appears to have accelerated underlying trends. Are there any changes in college admissions that you think are likely to stay, and do you have any advice for managing through the uncertainty?
Sai Samboon: Colleges have been moving toward virtual learning for some time—the pandemic has accelerated that trend. In the fall, it’s not clear what to expect. Many colleges have been moving toward a hybrid approach, with a mix of in-person and virtual classes, due in part to financial pressures and safety precautions. But given where we’re at with the virus, we could also see a completely virtual fall. I think it’s possible that students in the near future will be getting a full liberal arts education with more than half of it provided online.
Amy Alexander: Since everything is so uncertain, it’s even more important to do one’s research—whether it’s about the school’s testing policy, application deadlines or even its financial health. Many small liberal arts college, for example, are largely dependent on tuition revenue and lack a large endowment. So, if they don’t have full-pay students returning in the fall, they’re going to be hurting. But because we’re often quick to react to the worse-case scenarios, I would advise students to just ‘stay on their own mats’ and keep doing what they would have already done. Some things are just out of our control.
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