Self-isolated at her home in Norwood, Mass., Sophia Serratore has been practicing social distancing, taking virtual campus tours, doing college interviews on Skype and participating in admitted student days on Zoom.
In all, the 18-year-old high school senior applied to a dozen colleges, which, she acknowledges, “is definitely on the higher end.” Serratore has heard from most of them, but she’s still waiting on two. She said the pandemic has reduced how many in-person accepted student days she’s been able to participate in.
Virtual campus tours flatten the experience, Serratore said, so she’s struggling to get a feel for each school. “You just kind of see it from a view they want you to see it, and not so much like take it as your own.”
For a vast majority of high school seniors, deciding where to go to college — and how to pay for it — was already nerve wracking. Now, Sophia and other students say the pandemic has made it even more stressful. “There’s not really a strict timeline that we know of because it’s changing every day,” she said.
To reduce that uncertainty, many less selective colleges are moving their deadlines for submitting deposits back to June, since many families fear for their financial security. Other schools are relaxing admissions requirements. Boston University, Tufts University and the state of Oregon are dropping the SAT and ACT for at least a year. Harvard has announced applicants won't face a penalty if their high schools move to pass-fail grades. In Ohio, state lawmakers passed legislation that waives report cards for a year.
For many students, he said, the number one deciding factor is a campus visit.
“Most of those visits actually happen in April,” Selingo said. “They've applied to so many schools that typically they don't go to visit all of them and they visit the ones that they’re most serious about in April of their senior year. And now none of those visits will happen, at least face-to-face.”
Selingo said all colleges are worried they won’t be able to finalize their incoming class until closer to September, a year after a majority of American colleges said they did not fill their freshman classes by last July 1.
“Even those schools that are keeping a May 1 deadline, they might see a lot of what's called 'summer melt' — students deciding even after they deposited to go elsewhere during the summer, especially if their financial situation changes,” explained Selingo, who is hosting a virtual office houron college admissions in the midst of COVID-19 on Tuesday.
Or, he said, if students' minds change because they don’t want to go as far away to college because of COVID-19.
A new survey has found that one in six high school seniors are rethinking their plan to attend four-year colleges this fall and already some students are making the choice to stay closer to home, said Elizabeth Heaton, who works with families trying to navigate college admissions as a college admissions consultant at Bright Horizons.
“There's something about this whole pandemic that is making people feel like they want to be close to home and with their loved ones,” she said. “Perhaps at the end of this, all everyone will want to be as far away from their loved ones as possible, having been confined in a very small space.”
Heaton said some students are wondering how they’d get home if something like this happens again.
“I wouldn't be surprised if we might start seeing students who were farther from home consider transferring rather than returning to the school that they were at,” she said, adding that emotional and financial reasons are also leading more parents to urge their children to stick closer to home.
That has been the case for Serratore, she said, since colleges told students earlier this month to pack up their things for the semester.
“My mom and dad want me to stay close,” she said. “They don’t want to have to worry about me far away and having to go and get me.”
Serratore said she’s leaning toward staying in New England, and if the pandemic continues into the fall, she worries about even being able to go to campus and having to take her courses online instead.
“I feel like being at college is just such a huge part of the experience,” she said, “and not being able to do that will be very disheartening.”