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Campus walk-throughs have gone virtual, decision dates have been delayed for many, enrollment trends are uncertain, but counselors say the kids will be alright

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By Sheila Noonan

College applications and decisions have always had elements of uncertainty. But now, with COVID-19 and quarantines, the high school classes of 2020 and 2021 have perhaps more than their fair share of questions still to be answered: With the economic downturn, can they afford to attend their school of choice? Even if quarantines end before the fall semester, could the coronavirus reemerge widely enough to close college campuses again? How can students and parents get a “feel” for a college without stepping foot on campus?

Some questions are more easily addressed than others. Nonetheless, the school counselors who’ve followed these students’ progress through high school are generally optimistic about one thing: Even in this challenging and changing environment, the kids will be alright.

“College choice is very much a family discussion, and school counselors have been working alongside these families throughout the high school years so they can make the best decision,” said Fred Douglas, school counselor, Parsippany High School, president of the Morris County Professional Counselor Association and president-elect of the New Jersey School Counselor Association. For the most part, he said, seniors headed to college in the fall have completed the applications and made their choices.

Students being given more time to decide

For those who haven’t, several U.S. schools are giving them more time past the traditional May 1 decision date. At Rider University in Lawrence Township, for example, prospective undergraduates can request an extension of the deposit deadline to June 1. “With interruptions to many events and services in the region, it’s OK if you feel you need more time to make your final admission decision,” its website states.

Even students who’ve made a college decision might be inclined to change it. “Right now, kids who have applied to schools across the country are grappling with what the fall semester may look like, and I believe that will cause some students to defer admission for a year — which is something most colleges will consider — while taking courses at a community college or committing to a school closer to home,” said school counselor E. Lee Riley of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North.

Additionally, Riley said, “Accepted student days have moved to online, which obviously changes the experience, and that’s been tough. Colleges are trying their best to make the virtual experiences meaningful, but there is only so much they can do.” Even with the differences between an in-person and virtual experience, he added, New Jersey colleges are providing a tremendous amount of information to both students and high schools.

Uncertainty for the colleges too

If it’s any consolation for uncertain students and their families, said Douglas, higher education is feeling the pressure, too. “From the colleges’ side, they don’t know exactly what their future classes will look like.”

While the senior class completes the transition process, the Class of 2021 is gathering steam. With regard to standardized testing, they may be working under a truncated timeline. Some have taken the SAT or ACT once, but many students sit for those exams multiple times. This year’s May SAT exam was canceled, and the April ACT test was postponed to June, meaning more students will take the tests in the fall, just weeks before beginning college applications.

Meanwhile, the face-to-face conversations and programs school counselors have with juniors and their families are still occurring, as many business meetings are, by Zoom and FaceTime. “We know these kids are very active online and know how to use technology, so it’s been a relatively seamless transition, and in many cases, quite positive. We have outreach with students all the time, but in these difficult times, I’ve never been as proud to be a school counselor as I am today,” said Douglas. “My main message as juniors take the next steps in the college process is to be patient, be prepared and be flexible.”

“I’m an optimist, so I think that in most cases juniors and seniors will successfully navigate this process,” said Riley. “I reminded my students … not to let go of the excitement and sense of accomplishment that they should be feeling as they complete their high school careers.”

Colleges and universities are keeping an eye on fall enrollment while attempting to address current students’ concerns. For example, as of last week, deposits for next fall’s freshman spots at Seton Hall University were down about 10% from last year at the same time, while deposits from transfer students were up, said Mary Clare Cullum, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the school. At Stockton University, undergraduate enrollment was trending significantly ahead of last year but has slowed in the past few weeks, said Robert Heinrich, Chief Enrollment Management Officer.

Watching enrollment trends

Both admissions officers are optimistic that enrollment trends will soon change, but they understand the slowdown. “It might be taking students longer to make decisions,” said Heinrich. “We recognize at Stockton that college is a significant expense, and we try our best to work with them.” Some families might not be in the same financial situation today as when they filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) using 2018 information, he noted, and upon request, the university’s financial aid team will discuss with them additional aid students might be able to receive.

Cullum, too, has had many in-depth discussions with students and parents on such topics as deferred admission (an undergraduate’s spot in their major and scholarship can be held for a year) and the quality of Seton Hall’s online instruction. On the latter point, she said a taskforce of campus experts was convened to develop the highest level of distance learning possible.

Interactive technology tools are also used between college admissions officers and high school counselors to share information and answer questions. College fairs at high schools and other venues are also going virtual.

In the meantime, while there’s nothing like walking through the Seton Hall green or standing at the edge of Stockton’s Lake Fred, these schools, like other New Jersey colleges, are using all the technological resources possible to bring the campus experience to life for admitted and prospective students.

When it became clear quarantines could be in effect for a while, Cullum and her team decided to create a new video with the look and feel of a live campus tour. That, and other new resources featuring Seton Hall administration, residential life and more, are foundational to the university’s enhanced online profile. A recent virtual student-admitted-day drew about 1,200 attendees during the event and had 2,000 site visitors. “We’re working harder than ever before,” she said.

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