The coronavirus has impacted many of the rituals of the admissions office.

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The College Search, Upended

Each day of the COVID-19 crisis brings new challenges for students and colleges. The first days and weeks of the pandemic we were focused on the pivot to remote learning.

  • We’re just beginning to understand the enormity of the issues facing the admissions process, both for current high-school seniors, but also juniors.
  • Admissions is defined by age-old rituals that are being upended right now. Campus tours are all virtual. Testing dates for the SAT and ACT exams through May have been postponed or canceled. The College Board also scraped the in-person Advanced Placement tests this spring.
  • Flexibility. That was the word repeated often by admissions experts during a virtual town hall I hosted this past week (we’re doing another one this week….details below). Flexibility was used to describe the mindset that both accepted students and prospective applicants need right now, but also the admissions process itself in the coming month — and probably over the next year.

For seniors weighing their college choices, getting to campus is now impossible.

Georgia Tech was expecting 13,000visitors between now and the end of April, Rick Clark told us during the town hall. Rick is Georgia Tech’s director of undergraduate admissions and co-author ofThe Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.

  • In the place of the campus visit, colleges are “getting a lot more innovative in terms of some of the various mediums that they’re using to engage students,” Clark said, including webinars, short video tours, and, of course, the “traditional” virtual tour.
  • Advice: Clark suggested prospective students dig deeper on social media and follow the accounts of current students or clubs and team sports they might be interested in.

The common set of admissions deadlines are also being disrupted by the coronavirus. More than 250 colleges and universities have already moved their traditional May 1 deposit deadline to June 1.

  • Many colleges — especially selective ones — are still holding firm to May 1: they want to lock in a class as much as possible during these uncertain times. But look for that to change in the coming days and weeks if financial-aid offers are delayed or the virus gets worse in some cities.
  • What if a senior has been accepted to colleges with a mix of May 1 and June 1 deadlines? “Reach out and ask if they can be flexible,” said Diane Campbell, a counselor at Liberty Common High School in Colorado. One irony of social distancing is that because admissions officers are working off campus it’s often easier than ever to reach them.
  • A fluid summer ahead. Normally, colleges like to have their incoming classes finalized by the end of May. A June deadline means most colleges won’t be able to wrap up this year’s admission cycle until later in June — maybe.
  • Wait lists. In recent years, the wait lists have been growing — sometimes larger than the size of the entire freshman class they were supposedly waiting for. Expect even longer wait lists this years, Rick Clark said, and for colleges to go to them often and later than usual to maintain enrollment.
Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

What About High School Juniors?

The spring of junior year is a critical one in the admissions process, especially for those planning to apply early decision. Now, high schools have moved online, some have shifted to pass/fail grades, testing dates for the SAT and ACT have been canceled through May, and in-person Advanced Placement tests have been scrapped and replaced with 45-minute open-ended versions.

On the AP exams: The College Board’s Connie Betterton joined us for the town hall to answer questions. Among the most-asked ones:

  1. Will 45 minutes be enough? “We’ve taken a lot of care to ensure that that students can complete the materials in 45 minutes,” Betterton told us.
  2. What about cheating? “We have designed the exam questions and are planning to administer the test in ways that would make make cheating very difficult,” she said. Among those measures: Reading and analyzing primary sources to write substantive responses in the humanities. In math, complex problems where students will have to show their work.
  3. How will admissions officers evaluate AP classes on transcripts? “I think you’re going to have colleges bend over backwards to adapt and be flexible to make sure that no student is disadvantaged,” Betterton said. Rick Clark suggested that admissions officers will revamp their training for application readers next year given all the upheaval in high schools this spring.
  4. Will colleges give credit for the exams? At Georgia Tech, Rick Clark said “it’s highly likely that we will continue to give the same credit for the same class with the same score.” But he imagines two things happening. One, advisors will talk to students about whether they know the content well enough to take the credit. Two, faculty might consider online bridge programs this summer to help students with content they might have missed this spring.

On the SAT: For now, the College Board is still planning to administer the test in June. But “we don’t know what the next eight weeks are going to be like,” Betterton said.

Between the lines: It sounds like the College Board, like most institutions, is in triage mode — and right now the immediate focus is on the AP tests. It’s clear they know they’ll need to add SAT dates in the late summer and early fall, but how many, where, and when are still up in the air.

“We’re working now to identify alternate test dates throughout summer and fall with a goal of, if it’s at all possible, a one-a-one replacement,” said Connie Betterton.

What remains unclear is how the SAT dates might impact early-decision and early-action deadlines, which are typically November 1.

Bottom line: Admissions offices have long resisted changes to their process, but COVID-19 is making them think differently on the fly. The question is what changes might stick for the long run.

Watch a recording of the virtual town hall on-demand here.

More than 1,000 students, parents, counselors, and admissions officers participated in last week’s town hall, so I’m joining up with my friends at Grown & Flown and The Chronicle of Higher Education to host another one. Joining us will be:

  • Chris Gruber, dean of admission and financial aid, Davidson College
  • Janet Goodwin, chief operating officer, ACT
  • Gary Clark, director of undergraduate admission, UCLA

Tune in….Tuesday, March 31 at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT. Register here for free.

Northeastern University in Boston

What Were You Doing February 4?

On that day, Mike Armini, Northeastern University’s senior vice president for external affairs, was in a meeting with the university’s president, Joseph Aoun, when the president first suggested creating a coronavirus task force to think about how the virus in China might impact enrollment.

“That seemed like a fairly far-sighted comment on February 4,” Armini told me and Michael Horn for the next episode of the Future U podcast, which drops on Monday. “So a small group of us got together. Little did we know then that it would turn into this global pandemic and be on our doorstep.”

Armini is now co-chair of the university’s task force which is focused on five areas: business continuity, learning continuity, research continuity, campus operations, and communications.

  • A second task force has been formed on longer-term issues, what Armini described as “reimagining university.”
  • One topic that the group is focused on is potential visa issues for international students this fall. International students make up nearly 20% of Northeastern’s enrollment.
  • During his presidency, Aoun has been focused on building a global footprint. Now those satellite campuses might be a lifeline to international students, who could attend Northeastern in Toronto, Vancouver, or London this fall instead of Boston.

What’s smart: The second task force is largely made up of different people than Armini’s group and many don’t have key day-to-day responsibilities right now prevent burn out. They can also be more forward-thinking.

Subscribe to the FutureU podcast to get this episode on Monday, as well as two others in the coming week, focused on higher education and the coronavirus. Please rate and review the podcast as well, so others might find it.


The impact of the coronavirus in higher ed is a fast-moving story. To keep up, I’m depending on my Twitter feed more than ever.

  • For updates on the federal response for #highered: Ben Miller (@EduBenM), vice president of postsecondary education at Center for American Progress and a former official at the U.S. Education Department.
  • On the impact of coronavirus on international #highered: Karin Fischer (@karinfischer), a former colleague of mine at The Chronicle of Higher Education, who also publishes a weekly newsletter on global higher ed through Open Campus. Check it out.
  • On the fast pivot to remote education: There are a ton on this front, but let me highlight three for now with more to come, including Tanya Joosten (@tjoosten), Derek Bruff (@derekbruff), and Viji Sathy (@vijisathy).

In the coming weeks I’ll continue to highlight feeds I’m depending on, so please reach out to make suggestions of people I should be following.

Stay safe and stay strong — Jeff

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...