Tackling common college questions during COVID-19


This is an incredibly stressful time for families who have to navigate college admissions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a practical matter, this (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime experience has generated a great deal of college questions from anxious students, parents, educational consultants and high school counselors.

Some answers are known.

We know, for instance, that the Advanced Placement tests, with a radically different format, will take place next month. The number of colleges tossing SAT/ACT requirements continues to grow.  Lots of schools have extended their deposit date.

Searching for college answers during COVID-19

But far more questions remain unanswered.

And that’s why I sought out Robert Massa, a higher-ed thought leader, to get his take on what lays ahead in the college admission landscape.

Massa has been a leader in admissions and enrollment management for 46 years at a variety of private colleges. He was dean of admissions and financial aid at Johns Hopkins University for a decade and I crossed paths with him back in 2006 when my daughter Caitlin, her dad and I visited Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where Massa was vice president of enrollment.

Here are some of the topics that Massa, who is now teaching a graduate course on college enrollment management at USC, and I discussed during a 47-minute, recorded Q&A:

  • What do you think will happen on college campuses in the fall?
  • What’s going to happen to need-aware financial aid practices?
  • How successful will families be in appealing for more money?
  • How will colleges react to requests for deferrals/gap year?
  • Will there be more school closings/mergers?
  • What should people make of larger wait lists?
  • How do you evaluate a college when you can’t visit?
  • What do you think of the increasing number of schools becoming test-optional.

I am providing a snapshot below of some of Massa’s observations, but I’d urge you to watch the entire interview to hear the full discussion.

How will the coronavirus pandemic influence student choices?

Massa agrees with surveys of students that suggest that more students are going to want to attend college closer to home. One publicized survey suggests that more than a third of high school seniors said attending a college closer to home was more realistic than their first-choice option.

With the COVID-19 crisis wiping out jobs and shrinking assets, more students will likely be attending community college or regional state universities nearby and living at home.

Massa and I both agreed that parents should not jeopardize themselves financially to allow their children to attend their dream colleges. This is a luxury that doesn’t make sense in this time of financial insecurity.

When family finances aren’t an issue, Massa cautions students against rejecting a school they think is ideal just because they are scared. Massa believes that this disruption is temporary and eventually life on campuses will return to normal for most of an undergrad’s college years.

What might happen in the fall?

A March survey of college presidents and chancellors indicates that 36% of them think the college year will be disrupted. Massa thinks the chances that college campuses will be completely back to normal in the fall is small.

A couple of possibilities for the fall include:

  • The academic school year will start later with a compressed fall semester.
  • There could be some kind of hybrid arrangement where a smaller number of students would be on campus at any given time and others would be engaged in distant learning. Students would rotate in this arrangement.

Parents might be willing to pay for some kind of distant learning arrangement at an Ivy League school, but less likely at other institutions.

What about doing a gap year and asking for a college for a deferral?

A very small percentage of admitted freshmen typically ask for their admission to be deferred for a semester or a year. Massa anticipates that the percentage of accepted students wanting to start college later will grow but not significantly.

Massa believes that colleges will be approving these deferral requests. After all, colleges are going to want as many students to commit as possible so they will accommodate requests.

How colleges will regard gap year activities?

I asked Massa this question after I heard from some parents who wonder if a child uses a deferral to take courses at a community college, will they still be considered a freshman when they start at a four-year institution?

Usually, colleges will not accept credits from students who attended a community college during a gap year. Or may just accept a very small number, but this is an unusual time.

Massa said it’s important to ask a school if a child’s status as a freshmen will be protected if he/she plans to take classes elsewhere and if the credits will be accepted.

Something to think about is that the best merit aid is typically given to freshman. Students, who want to take some classes during a gap period, will want to make sure how this might impact merit scholarships and potential financial aid.

What will happen when colleges are overwhelmed with greater financial aid need and appeals?

I specifically asked Massa about need-aware policies, which will need an explanation for some of you. Many colleges have traditionally rejected some students because they required financial aid. Basically when financial aid funds run out, need-aware schools start looking for students who can pay full price or close to it at the expense of students who have significant need.

For my readers who want to see how this common policy plays out during hard times, here is a link to a New York Times story published during the 2008-2009 recession that attracted thousands of reader comments.

In addressing my need-aware question, Massa said that the majority of schools can’t afford to be need-aware because they will need to attract more students as some sit out, some attend schools closer to home or go to community colleges.

While schools won’t turn away students that they might have normally, many students won’t get the financial aid they need. That will lead to families deciding how much is safe to borrow.

How can high school seniors make a decision when they haven’t visited a school yet?

There are ways to evaluate a school when visiting a school isn’t an option. Massa urged students to schedule an online visit with a college’s  admission rep to ask a series of questions. Students should ask the admission rep to connect them with professors and students at the institution.

I should mention that I wrote a post years ago that explains how you can research academic departments, which I think that is critical!

Here is that post:

Digging Deeper When Researching Colleges

Bottom Line:

No one knows for sure what will happen going forward, but staying informed will be crucial to making the best college decisions.









Let's Connect

Leave a Reply

  1. Such an interesting and informative conversation – thanks, Lynn! Obviously, no one has a crystal ball, but you and Robert have given families some important items to consider.