College admissions season is a time of dizzying panic, jubilant triumph, and sometimes, necessary self-reflection. For students lucky enough to know they’re headed to a four-year one way or another, the admissions season can feel like a rat-race to make it into the most selective of the nation’s universities. For others, college admissions are more mediated by practical concerns; distance, money, location and other factors play a bigger role in decisions than which extracurricular to highlight.
Regardless, it’s a time filled with stress for students and parents alike. Exacerbated by the pandemic, however, college admissions have changed — likely for good. While some are skeptical of these changes, others claim they are long overdue. Regardless, the new rules will likely wholly redefine the admissions process and American higher education.
COVID-19 has radically impacted education across the globe. From kindergarten classes to Ph.D. programs, students have had to adjust to online classes and convoluted re-opening plans as case numbers rise and fall and rise again. For those in the crux of their academic journeys — making the jump from K-12 to higher education — this period of flux has been overwhelming just because of the sheer magnitude of the changes. Their futures have never been more uncertain, and as colleges shift to online programs for the foreseeable future, they’re being forced to question everything they knew (or thought they knew) about the value of the collegiate experience.
Any freshman in college comes into their experience with great expectations. In normal times, fraternity parties, late nights with roommates and football games define campus life. Tour guides spend time dissecting the cushy accommodations at the most elite campuses, and dining halls are put on display as sites of communal revelry and moderate-to-okay sustenance. Yet in the time of COVID-19, all of that fluff falls away. Undergraduates and prospective students are left with just one thing: an education.
COVID-19 has thus undoubtedly shifted focus to the thing students are actually paying for — a series of courses, research opportunities and face-time with a handful of professors. Studies predict that this change in priorities will cause more students to seek campuses closer to home, maybe with a more pragmatic lens, as they’re less likely to be drawn away to schools with flashy campus traditions in bigger, faraway cities. As The New York Times puts it, the pandemic has perhaps “soured the romance” of the college shopping experience, urging students to think more critically about the economically (and epidemiologically) safe options.
Admissions officers are, of course, aware of this. With pandemic-related financial burdens increasing for universities nationwide, the pressure is on to get as many students to financially commit to their schools as soon as possible. The New York Times also predicts that schools with “early decision” applicant pools will likely accept more ED students than in years prior, with a strong economic incentive to prioritize those students with the ability to pay (since an early decision contract is binding, the idea is that your contract demonstrates financial obligation for tuition in the event of an acceptance).
While this would allow schools to figure out how much financial aid they can give to the rest of the students, potentially acting as an equalizer, the move could end up disadvantaging students in lower-income pools who are unable to financially commit to tuition — particularly as personal finances take a pandemic-fueled hit.
The changes to admissions aren’t just student-motivated, however. Logistically, high school rites of passage, like the infamous standardized tests, have had to undergo massive alterations. As SATs and ACTs have been canceled, reduced in quantity or postponed, admissions officers have sought to accommodate students in a radical re-envisioning of the acceptance process; many universities are opting for a test-optional admissions plan, following in the footsteps of the University of Chicago and (more recently) the University of California system.
Unlike the favoring of early-decision applicants, moving away from the strict metric of standardized test scores could help make admissions fairer. Less privileged students with great academic records will be boosted, no longer compared to affluent applicants who can afford to pay for swanky SAT tutors and boot camps. The emphasis is placed, instead, on class rigor and grades.
In a parallel to an applicant’s college choices, education becomes what matters most in the pandemic. And since complaints of inequity in test prep have long been a source of concern, it’s unlikely that universities making the choice to discount standardized tests will turn back to them once the crisis ends.
COVID-19’s logistical impact has also gone on to reduce what admissions officers refer to as “application bloat.” With extracurriculars and clubs getting canceled left and right, there’s less pressure for students to rack up hours outside of class doing everything from student government to club tennis. In some ways, the pandemic has actually reduced the collective anxiety about getting into college, allowing students the freedom and luxury of time to learn effectively and forget about window dressing. It’s a refreshing change, and one that has perhaps placed emphasis back where it rightfully belongs: in the classroom.
It’s up to time to tell what will happen once colleges re-open, high school education resumes and the world gets back on its feet. But in equalizing the standing of students and streamlining the application process to place the onus on educational achievements, the brave new world of college admissions may just be worth keeping around.