Undoubtedly, the coronavirus is having a significant impact on the college planning process. The vast majority of Americans remain under stay-at-home orders. Universities and high schools alike are shuttered. And students, parents, and teachers have suddenly been thrown into the new world of full-time, remote learning.
Predictions vary for how long remote learning will be the norm and how frequently we’ll need to return to it as the month’s progress. What’s certain, however, is that distance learning is having a profound impact on the education system now. And it will continue to affect the college planning process going forward. Here’s how:
A Different Approach to Grades and Testing
In the fall semester, remote learning will likely look different than it does now. Wrapping up the spring semester, however, schools were forced to scramble to create on-the-fly remote schooling. High schools, colleges, and companies working with college-bound students lacked the time to develop educational structures proactively during a pandemic.
As a result, this semester is receiving special treatment in the eyes of many schools.
Colleges have relaxed their requirements for transcripts and grades during the spring months. High schools have had to modify their approach to student evaluations — figuring out how to test students learning in a remote environment. Some have moved to pass-fail grading for classes that have been moved online, as students struggle to learn while caring for family and coping with the difficulties of a worldwide health crisis.
Essential exams — the SAT, the ACT, the GRE, AP tests, and CLEP exams — have been canceled for now with the possibility of shortened online versions for some in the fall. As a result, many colleges are ignoring these standardized tests, opting to put more weight on students’ grades, and other application materials.
Concerns Over Access to Quality Education
The sudden shift to remote learning has made getting a high-caliber high school education more challenging for many students. High schoolers in low-income areas particularly are struggling with the change. And colleges will be forced to consider the disparity in weighing student applications this year and beyond.
Consider the case of Paterson, NJ, the highest density city in the country after New York City. According to census data, more than 25% of students have no home computers in Paterson, and one in three do not have Internet.
The consequences of those figures are significant. Right now, the school district is sifting through a backlog of hundreds of boxes filled with handwritten student homework. And, while efforts are finally underway to distribute laptops to high school students, there aren’t enough devices for students in the lower grades.
While the majority of students in the U.S. do have a computer and high-speed Internet, the obstacles are enormous for those who don’t. They have, in effect, lost access to their teachers. Instead, they’re suddenly faced with self-instruction from textbooks and homework packets to complete independently.
Studies show that lower-income families are more likely to have smartphones than computers or tablets. But smartphones aren’t equipped to support some educational software teachers are currently using. And families with multiple school-aged children must contend with sharing a limited number of devices and fighting for Internet bandwidth.
Even with the right technology, students’ performance with remote learning isn’t necessarily a good predictor for how they’ll fare in college. A recent study from Columbia University found that most students faltered when transitioning from in-person classes to online courses. But the largest decreases in performance were seen in students already struggling academically and in certain racial groups.
The sudden move to remote learning for high schoolers has highlighted and deepened the divide between high-performing students with access to technology and everyone else. And colleges will need to re-evaluate how they predict a student’s preparedness for college now and going forward.
New Considerations in the College Application Process
At the start of this year, the standard advice held true on what colleges want to see from applicants. But all of that is changing.
With high schools closed and social distancing, the norm for the foreseeable, student life has changed. Extra-curriculars and athletic events are canceled. Special student projects have been put on hold, and leadership roles have been suspended. Colleges, in turn, will need to rethink what qualities they seek from students who are limited by lockdowns.
At the same time, students are struggling to stay on course with their original college plans. They’ve lost significant access to school libraries and counselors who helped them navigate the process.
For many students, changes in funding have meant a shift in their approach to college planning. Student-athletes hoping to be seen scouted this spring are finding athletic scholarships harder to procure now. Most work-study programs have been held over during social distancing, impacting the financial aid packages of one in ten incoming freshmen.
And college-bound Americans are rethinking their intended fields of study too. Many recognize that the health crisis and economic decline will affect the country for years to come. These changes will likely spark an increase in jobs in some sectors while limiting employment in others. So choosing a major now means rethinking what kind of job market there will be when students graduate college.
Finally, students are being pressed to make important college decisions without the usual informational resources. With schools closed nearly nationwide, families can’t tour university grounds, get a feel for campus life, sit in on classes, or ask questions of existing students. Virtual tours have become the best option. Traveling admission fairs have shut down. And admission interviews have been moved to phone or video sessions.
Students Watch How Schools Are Adapting
With so many students pivoting in their college planning process, some are examining how schools are meeting the challenges of the time. And the observations they make are informing their eventual choice in a school.
Answers to these questions have become increasingly important in the last few months:
- How is a college adapting to the pandemic? What systems has it put in place to address student needs?
- How is it treating existing students in terms of housing, tuition refunds, and critical resources?
- How is the school’s financial health? Is it being forced to lay off faculty, cut back on programs, or decrease financial aid?
- What is the school’s capacity for handling remote or digital learning successfully?
- What technology do students need and have access to for remote learning?
- Is the school planning to delay opening day or make the first semester online only?
- What plans and contingency plans does the college have in place for the coming year? What is the school’s educational strategy for dealing with future periods of temporarily increased social distancing?
- What policies are in place to protect the health and safety of the college community?
- What policies are there to support students and faculty who fall ill?
Remote Learning Challenges for Schools & Teachers
Students and their parents are facing an unexpected and significant set of changes in their college planning process. But colleges too, are facing difficulties with remote learning that have changed the nature of college admissions.
Undoubtedly, there is a significant difference between traditional online learning and the crisis-fueled remote learning that’s happening now. Schools, administrators, and teachers have been forced to transition almost instantaneously from in-person classes to remote learning.
The learning curve has been extreme. Teachers trained to excel in classrooms must now make effective remote learning curriculums, learn new software packages, teach over video or E-mail, and figure out how to help students succeed from afar. And those same teachers reinventing school as we know it are simultaneously managing their own family’s health needs, child care interruptions, and daily life during the pandemic.
Up until now, the approach to remote learning has been — out of necessity — largely reactionary. But, heading into the summer and fall, schools will no doubt look to building a more thoughtful and permanent strategy for teaching students remotely.
Creating that blueprint will be a challenging but invaluable endeavor going forward. Colleges will need to deliver quality education and giving students access to professors across a distance. At the same time, they’ll need to address students’ needs for on-campus resources — library books and databases, laboratories and science equipment, facilities for athletes, recital requirements and practice aids for performing arts majors, and so on.
And colleges are looking to transition other critical offerings to online venues as well. Tutoring and mental health services, for instance, are now expanding beyond in-office visits for many colleges and moving to phone or video forums.
Just a few months ago, few people would have predicted the sudden importance of remote learning or its impact on the country. But the impact is undeniable now. The education system is rapidly evolving to meet the demands of the COVID-19 era and the needs of American families. And the changes we’ll see over the coming months will forever change the way students and schools approach the college planning process.