College is usually a bridge connecting childhood to full-fledged adulthood. Parents release their kids from the nest with the reassurance of a safety net of RAs, advisors, peers, and professors to help steer as kids learn to navigate without the constant presence and nagging of parents. In the span of a few months, this rest stop was disassembled, and future college students and their families were left with some of the biggest question marks ever to face college counselors.
“This will be the year of change in college admissions,” says Phil Trout, the college counselor at Minnetonka High School. “We have never experienced this much change in one year’s time in my 35-plus-year career in college counseling … and we have little certainty that life will return to ‘normal’ anytime soon.”
“This will be the year of change in college admissions. We have never experienced this much change in one year’s time in my 35-plus-year career in college counseling.”
—Phil Trout, counselor, Minnetonka High School
Finding the Right Fit
Much like trying on clothes in a store (remember that?!), a students’ college search is a process of identifying their criteria and researching their options. “For nearly all students, their best opportunity to judge ‘fit’ occurs during the campus visit,” Trout says. “That option continues to be hard to pursue.” Since March, when institutions shut down and sent their students home, the iconic tours with actual students have been replaced with virtual tours and presentations.
At Parnassus Preparatory School in Maple Grove, counselors contracted through Minnesota-based College Connectors are helping families navigate the year virtually.
“Going through the whole college search is very similar, with the exception of being able to physically visit some of the campuses at this point,” says Laurie Macgregor, a College Connectors counselor at Parnassus.
Macgregor and her colleague Jenny Buyens started hosting monthly video sessions to answer families’ questions during the 2019–20 school year, before Zoom became our only connection to the world, and they are continuing those sessions as well as virtual college presentations and individual virtual student meetings.
Other schools are also using screen time to connect with students. “Zoom is our best friend,” says Lisa Pederson, director of college counseling at Mounds Park Academy in St. Paul. Her team shares college updates, hosts senior seminars, and connects students to virtual college fairs and college visits.
“The relationships we’ve developed make the uncertainties easier to handle,” she says. “In the end, bringing a calm, positive, open mind to the process—and a sense of humor on occasion—will help everyone find their right fit.” Pederson’s experience is personal too, with one of her own children facing the college admissions process.
“The delivery is going to be a lot more virtual than in-person, but the information and the process are still the same,” Buyens says. “There are always a lot of moving pieces for the college admission process, and COVID has made things more interesting, but it certainly hasn’t made it necessarily more complex. It’s just another wrinkle.”
Courtesy of Parnassus Preparatory School
Testing, Testing—Is This Thing On?
Another one of those wrinkles is the application constant of test scores. Most ACT and SAT test centers have been shuttered since March, leaving many students score-less. “In a typical year, more than 85 percent of our seniors will have taken the ACT test,” Trout says. “As of the beginning of August, only 33 percent of our seniors have taken the ACT.”
There’s no guarantee that test centers will reopen anytime soon. Thankfully, colleges are able to adjust. As of press time in early September, about 1,450 colleges and universities across the country have adopted a test-optional policy for admissions. (The updated list can be found at fairtest.org/university/optional.)
“A lot of colleges are doing just a one-year plan, and some are doing a three-year plan to see how it goes—some have just switched over completely,” Macgregor says. “Each year, the number of test-optional schools increases, and we hope to see more.”
Test optional is every high schooler’s dream: no requirement of an ACT or SAT score for admission. Goodbye, ACT prep class, books, practice exams, and early-Saturday-morning test.
But it’s not all test-less bliss. There are many questions that come with what Buyens calls the double-edged sword of test optional. “A lot of families are suspecting that yes, it’s optional, but if you do have a good score and you submit it, are you at an advantage over a student who doesn’t submit?” she says. They have to trust colleges that “if it’s truly optional and a student does not submit a score, it won’t be used against them.”
Not only could students who submit test scores have better odds than those who don’t, there are also scholarship requirements to consider. Scholarships, even within test-optional schools, often have test score thresholds that may determine how much a student receives.
“A lot of colleges are doing just a one-year plan, and some are doing a three-year plan to see how it goes—some have just switched over completely. Each year, the number of test-optional schools increases, and we hope to see more.”
—Laurie MacGregor, College Connectors counselor, Parnassus
“There’s still a lot of uncertainty around it, but I’ll be curious to see how colleges pivot and use different information in order to evaluate a student’s application,” Buyens says. Beyond the typical markers of grades and test scores, she wonders, “How much weight is the essay going to have this year? How much weight will the supplemental essays have? How much weight will an interview have? That’s a big TBD.”
The other measures have issues of their own. Parents have already raised concerns about the now unavailable activities, clubs, and other extracurriculars used to bolster and round out applications.
“Colleges—wow do they have a mountain to climb this fall,” Buyens says. “They have to change and adapt their policies internally, but then they also have to retrain their admissions people and their readers. Their whole process is just completely upended.”
Though institutional change is often arduous, it’s high time for higher education to make a move. The Magic 8 Ball of 2020 has shaken up policies and practices ingrained in its systems for years. “Maybe they should have been changed a long time ago, and maybe now is the right time to change them—or maybe keep them. I think everything’s being examined right now,” Buyens says.
Courtesy of Minnetonka High School
The Ripple Effect
The tidal wave of COVID-19 has ripples that roll out to 2021 and maybe beyond. Colleges and universities announced online learning and hybrid plans, prompting students to ask: Why am I paying top dollar for a Zoom class in my living room?
Some are switching to a more affordable option, while others are deferring for a year to work or explore a gap year program—underwater basket weaving, anyone? “The unanticipated drop in revenue will cause some colleges to make tough decisions to reduce faculty; remove certain academic and campus programs; and in some cases, to close,” Trout says.
These changes also mean that some students who tossed their caps in 2020 will wait to begin their college journeys. Buyens says that this year’s parents are wondering if that means fewer spots for 2021 grads. “It depends on each college, but I think, by and large, those fears are unwarranted.”
Colleges have stepped up, offering reduced tuition because of exclusively online programs, and some, like Wisconsin’s Beloit and St. Norbert colleges, are offering a free semester. “I think colleges are making it really enticing for [students] to come back rather than even consider a gap year,” she says.
Safety is also top of mind as parents send kids out of the house into an already daunting real world—now off its axis. Colleges, Buyens says, are “sharing their plans for social distancing and testing and quarantining to make families feel more comfortable about sending their student off to college.”
This article originally appeared in the October issue.