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The Great Unknown for Colleges: This Fall's Freshmen Class

The coronavirus has sent a shockwave through higher education. FutureEd Policy Associate Brooke LePage explored the impact of the pandemic on next fall’s incoming class with Angel B. Pérez, Trinity College’s outgoing vice president for enrollment and student success and the incoming chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.  

LePage: The coronavirus broke at a time when high school seniors would traditionally be choosing a school. How has the decision timeline been impacted—both for schools and for students?

Pérez: The ramp-up of school closures started happening around March, and that is exactly when we drop admissions decisions. In that sense, this year’s decisions were not impacted by the coronavirus. But what we started realizing is that families were going to obviously need more time this year. So many of us are still monitoring our enrollment every day.

Many families are holding on to their deposits because they think we're going to make an announcement about what we're going to do about opening in the Fall, and that announcement is probably not going to come until mid-June or early July.

This is the first year that most colleges in America won't know what their enrollment is going to look like. And that is unnerving and very, very challenging for creating budgets, for creating staffing models.

Has if affected financial aid decisions?

We realize many families are going to have to think about finances, so we wanted to give people more time. We have three times the number of financial aid appeals that we've had in the past.

Do you anticipate more students taking a gap year?

You’re going to see families who are depositing, but then may start requesting gap semesters or gap years because we're hearing from families that starting online is not their ideal image of college, particularly at Trinity, a small, residential, liberal-arts experience.

One of the things the community members at Trinity have asked me is, are you going to limit the number of gap years or gap semesters? And I said, no because if we’re strict, we’re going to end up losing those families anyway. Colleges will be delighted to swoop in and steal students from one another, because there are no rules against it anymore.

So, what an institution looks like in the fall, whether classes are in-person or online, has become a big factor for students’ decisions?

I don't have a crystal ball, but I do think there's going to be a lot of movement this summer. I think there's going to be a lot of students who commit to one school but are going to go somewhere else.

What’s the impact of this crisis on admissions testing? Trinity has been test-optional for a few years, but many schools are piloting programs or making the transition in response to the virus.

I'm really passionate about the test-optional movement. The fact that in the span of two weeks dozens of schools have announced plans to go test-optional is fascinating, because at most institutions it takes years to move testing policy. And now that the University of California has announced [suspending use of standardized admissions testing for four years], I think there is no turning back.

Most schools are saying that they’re going to pilot test-optional policies for one to three years. But my hope is that when they run the data and they see that their classes were just as strong if not stronger [without test scores], and that they're happy with their students….I have a really hard time believing that these schools will go back to the exam. This could really be a turning point in this country around testing.

The College Board is in a challenging place right now. there is a lot of concern about the validity of at-home SAT. I think this is going to be an industry disrupter.

And I do think that if the state of California does not go back to the SAT, then it's going to be a new landscape in higher education because California is the largest state and the University of California as a system receives among the highest number of test scores sent to them by the College Board. I don't believe all tests will go away, but the landscape is shifting dramatically.

In what other ways is the higher education industry evolving?

I think this is the first time where I am seeing higher education institutions be a lot more open to flexibility, almost because we don't really have a choice. And so I do think that colleges and universities right now are feeling an extraordinary amount of pressure between maintaining tradition and total reinvention.

What does that look like at Trinity?

We’re exploring various models. One example is a hybrid model where some students start online and then we have a limited number on campus based on the number of students that we can house in their own rooms, so that they don't have to share a room and bathrooms.

Anther model obviously could be an entirely online system, if we have another outbreak this summer and the governor doesn’t allow schools to open.

[Listen: Podcast: The Coming Enrollment Crunch]

The other models that we're considering are a shift of the entire academic calendar or having shorter semesters, like one that ends before Thanksgiving so that students aren't traveling back to campus after going home, and risking another outbreak.

The other challenge is once you price that, how do you discount it through financial aid when your entire financial aid model goes out the window? And then to add more complexity, is the Department of Education going to be flexible with their rules so we can actually do this?

How are you accounting for international students who may not be able to come to campus?

There's such a huge disconnect between what's happening at the national level versus what happens at colleges and universities, where we're extremely welcoming and excited to host international students. I'm really worried about the fear of the pandemic and the inability [of many students] to even get a visa to get here. If you add the negative rhetoric coming out of D.C., it is a recipe for a huge decline in international students, not just this year, but I think in the foreseeable future. At Trinity, 15 percent of our population is international students. And so we are also starting to think what we offer students who can't physically get to us even if we want to.

Have you been hearing that students are choosing schools closer to home?

We are starting to see an increase in enrollment from students in New England, which was actually the total opposite trajectory we've been on.

Do you think that the pandemic will permanently change parts of the higher education system?

I've really been saying that this is an extraordinary opportunity for reinvention. Because we were already at the brink and this has pushed us over the edge. Why not use this as an extraordinary opportunity to rethink the way that higher education operates?

I've been saying this over and over again, that we should be embarrassed as a nation that colleges and universities are three months away from going bankrupt. That is not the kind of country we want to be. And that has extraordinary implications, not just for access, but also for, obviously, revenue in this country. And it has extraordinary implications for communities.

[Listen: Podcast: Will Covid Permenantly Change Instruction and Costs in Higher Ed?]