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What will post-Covid College Admissions Look Like?

We’re taking a look at the lessons we’ve learned so far about how covid-19 has changed college admissions.

Theresa Rex
Theresa Rex

Jun 08, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic forced a lot of fast and lasting changes in nearly every aspect of our lives: how we go to work, school, and even out to eat is unlikely to ever feel exactly the same. Some of this is good news — for working parents and students, the flexibility of everything from telemedicine to hybrid scheduling is a welcome change.

Not every change has been quite as positive, but one thing is certain: even as life returns to “normal”, we’ll be feeling the ripple effects of the pandemic’s impact on everything we do for years to come. One aspect of life that’s closest to the epicenter of all of this change is higher education, starting with post-covid college admissions. Today, we’re taking a look at the lessons we’ve learned so far and what these changes could mean for college-intending students in the long run.

Post-covid college admissions might mean test-optional applications are here to stay

One of the first challenges institutions of higher education had to grapple with were mandates against in-person gatherings smack in the middle of SAT and ACT season. Requiring the inclusion of these scores with student applications would have been the equivalent of requiring students to do the impossible.

The result? Millions of missing applications. Rather than skipping over an entire freshman class, schools chose to go test-optional instead. For the first time in recent history, students could apply to schools that they would have otherwise eliminated from their final list because of the high scoring threshold.

Predictably, this meant a massive influx of applications, flowing especially into so-called "elite" colleges and institutions in the top 25 of the U.S. News’ yearly Top Colleges list. This year, Harvard saw a 43% increase in year-over-year applications, and Columbia saw a 51% increase, especially from Pell-eligible applicants. The result was a more diverse pool of applicants and ultimately, a more diverse freshman class. However, both schools also had record low admissions rates overall, at 3.4% and 3.6% respectively.

The takeaway here is that without the barrier to entry that SAT and ACT scores traditionally represent, more students felt their chances of being accepted to reach schools were much higher, so they reached higher than ever before.

There’s also evidence to suggest that overall, students felt they could be more selective with the colleges they applied to, with a recent survey finding that 11% of this 2021’s college applicant pool were still thinking of applying to more schools as recently as April.

The influx in applications has caused colleges and universities to rethink the long-term benefits of remaining test optional, with a 2020 Inside Higher Ed survey revealing that of the nearly 1,500 colleges and universities that went test-optional during the pandemic, 68% anticipate that they will keep the policy in place going forward.

Financial aid trends confirm the need to confront inequities in post-covid college admissions

Along with lower acceptance rates, lower Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion rates may point to the danger of achievement gaps widening in student outcomes. 40% of first generation students and 37% of low income students tackle the FAFSA alone. It’s an application that can be a complex and confusing process for students if they don’t have additional guidance, which is often the case for those groups.

Incomplete FAFSAs, along with the accompanying verification process for the around 18-22% of students who are Pell grant eligible but flagged for the process is thought to be responsible for 20% of “summer melt” among filers. That’s why it’s discouraging to see that at last count, there were 148,000 fewer FAFSA completions than in pre-covid years — that’s a 10% drop in total applications.

Completing the FAFSA has traditionally been a tough ask for students that don’t have the benefit of previous family experience, and it’s clear that the pandemic accounts for making it even tougher. It’s not difficult to imagine that families that experienced job loss, upheaval, or other insecurities during a pandemic year would have priorities above the completion of paperwork. It’s not all bad news, though.

Several legislative initiatives have been proposed to help students catch up from the consequences of what some are calling a "lost year", suggesting that students who fell behind during the pandemic or who are at risk of falling behind in subsequent years could make some needed headway. These include the potential for free community college, which are the institutes of higher education that see the biggest percentage of summer melt in every year, but especially the past one.

Also on the table? The potential for a free 4-year education for families that make less than $125K annually and a doubled Pell award. These changes alone could provide the necessary incentive to reprioritize the FAFSA for students who need to complete it in order to qualify.

Enrollment trends in a post-covid world may take some time to return to normal

It's difficult to find universal, in-depth data on the number of students that deferred their enrollment in the fall thanks to pandemic-related concerns, but there's enough to draw a few reasonable conclusions.

13% fewer students enrolled in college last fall than they did before the pandemic introduced the dilemma of in-person versus online instruction for institutes of higher education. Whether the drop was due to students hanging back from in-person instruction from a place of apprehension, or virtual learning fatigue is unknown. What we do know is that while the decrease in enrollment was universal, it was more prevalent among certain student ethnic groups:

  • White: -15.3%

  • Black: -18.7%

  • Hispanic: -19.9%

  • Native/Indigenous: -23.2%

Additionally, community college enrollment was hardest hit, with 40% of overall community college bound students choosing to drop or defer in the fall of 2021. Zooming in a little, 45% of low-income students who were planning to enroll in community college did the same. Does this mean the end of college admissions processes and enrollment as we know it? It's unlikely. Many of the fears around attending class in-person have been assuaged with widespread vaccine availability. Concerns about foregoing a more complete college experience in favor of an all-virtual one have dissipated with widespread announcements by many colleges that students can expect in-person instruction in the fall.

But the going already appears to be pretty slow. Early National Student Clearinghouse data shows that spring enrollment didn't bring the sharp increase in students heading back to campus some expected. In fact, the spring brought further dips in Bachelor's program enrollment and an even steeper decline in Associate's degree program enrollments. It may take some time before enrollment numbers bounce all the way back, and it's worth keeping an eye on where students end up as campuses gradually begin to reopen for good.

Theresa Rex

Theresa Rex is the content marketing manager at SchooLinks. She is a first-generation college grad and an absolute nerd for equity and em dashes.

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