• Dr. Thom

Couch Surfing College Search: What Happens in the Fall


Photo by Zoey Tian on Unsplash

I spent an entire day this week convinced it was the wrong day of the week. I mean, what really marks the days in a quarantined life? Each day feels like a working Saturday, where neighbors are out walking dogs while on conference calls, talking to the air while they pick up doggie doo. Tuesday? Wednesday? Sure.


The changeless nature for me runs in contrast to what's happening in higher education right now, where the ground has shifted, perhaps permanently. In his novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky observes the permanence of change noting that, "Life doesn't stop for anybody." So it is for all of my higher education colleagues as multiple, single points of failures in the admissions machine have all crashed simultaneously.


The college admissions process by its nature is highly decentralized, with each college determining for itself how students will apply. This is in contrast to single-point application systems, such as the central matching process used in medical school residency or the British UCAS system. This doesn't mean, however, that there are not bottlenecks present in the American admissions process.


We found that out in 2013, when the Common Application underwent an aggressive and ultimately ill-fated revamp of their online application platform. Glitches, inaccessibility, and app submission problems that persisted for months created what was described at the time as "application armageddon." This challenge resulted in admissions deans scrambling to find back-up application plans such as the Coalition for College, created by a handful of highly selective colleges that felt they were left holding the bag by Common App.


Now in 2020, the pattern is repeating as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college campuses and along with them, nearly all standardized testing and on-campus recruitment. Standardized testing and on-campus recruitment are so important that they represent single points of failure in the admissions process in the United States. For years, most colleges grossly underinvested in meaningful live online recruitment, in lieu of emphasizing on-campus tours and programming. At the same time, most colleges relied on standardized testing to aid them in admissions and scholarship decisions. Since on-campus programming has all but halted, and the SAT and ACT have cancelled multiple test sittings, alternative plans have been hurriedly made. While thousands of colleges scrambled to create online live recruitment programming, dozens of colleges have temporarily amended their standards and will not require a standardized test score for the 2020 admissions cycle. This is on top of the more that 1,200 colleges that have officially, and permanently, gone "test optional" according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing.


These changes, like those brought on by the disruptions with the 2013 Common App redesign, are likely to be lasting into the 2020 cycle and beyond, with colleges continuing to explore online recruitment and with the SAT and the ACT already working on at-home versions of their standardized tests. What other COVID-19 related issues should you be watching for in the Fall of 2020 and what can you do about it all?


Closure Decisions


Expect a steady stream of announcements throughout June on whether universities will be open for on-campus instruction and residential life. While 65% of colleges report they are planning on in-person instruction in the fall, another 21% are still unsure or are waiting to decide. The regionalization of COVID-19 mitigation responses may result in vastly different enrollment realities for students in the various parts of the United States. For example, the California State university system, enrolling more than 480,000 students across 23 campuses, announced this week that courses will be almost completely online this fall.


This week also pulled some news straight out of the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" bin in that many colleges that are considering being open in the fall are privately worried about legal liability issues surrounding COVID-19 and are seeking protection assurances from the U.S. Department of Education. This is on top of ongoing lawsuits filed by current students seeking refunds for the spring semester after colleges moved classes online due to the pandemic.


AP Testing Struggles?


This year, the College Board deployed a first-run version of online AP tests that are being conducted this week and next. Early reports of the realities of taking the tests online for the first time indicate that some students have experienced glitches in submission of the tests. The College Board insists that only 1% of students have reported technical problems. For now, we encourage anyone who has problems with a test to reach out to the College Board immediately and plan to retake the test in June. For all students who have tests coming up, make sure to run through the set-up instructions sent by the College Board in advance of your designated test time, and make sure your internet connection is stable.


Gap Year Uncertainty


There have been several notable voices that have encouraged students who might otherwise be committed to enrolling in the fall to consider taking a gap year, including this letter from Eric Furda, the Dean of Admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. With the aforementioned uncertainty of what campuses will do in the fall, the sentiment seems to be that students should seize the moment and travel, work, or learn a language. The challenge there is that many of those gap year programs have also had to adjust their Fall 2020 programming, due to COVID-19. Foreign travel is also experiencing significant disruptions as flight restrictions and non-immigrant visa services have been suspended in many countries, including the U.S. That doesn't mean that if you are a junior and considering a gap year that all bets are off, it just means that you should cast a very wide net. Start with the Gap Year Association's list of vetted programs and gap year planning guide.


BUT, here's the best news of all . . .


The answer to the question "What happens in the Fall?" is always: what you decide happens.


Yes, there are a lot of decisions that others will make about their colleges, about your application, and about the tests you will take. Yes, there are a lot of unknowns. There will always be unknowns in significant and scary life decisions - that's what makes them that way. "Life doesn't stop for anybody," yes, that's true. But you can stop for yourself, place a breath and a thought between what happens to you in life and how you react. Inside that space between stimulus and response is choice, and it lives there no matter how much chaos swirls about.


Yes, there's a lot we don't know about what will happen in the Fall, but we can decide that we will continue to grow stronger and healthier with our families. That is what's happening in the Fall.


Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.


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