The novel coronavirus has brought innumerable challenges to higher education. Classes have moved online with minimal notice, preparation, or training. Students were forced to move out of their dorms quickly, and some of them could not safely return home. Layoffs and furloughs have been announced as institutions reel from revenue loss. Now, colleges and universities have no to slow down as they look ahead to the fall semester and recruiting the Class of 2024.

This recruitment cycle was going to be a difficult one even before the pandemic. A smaller pool of applicants, coupled with increased concern about tuition costs and the value of a degree, put admissions officers in a difficult position. Add in COVID-19 and all bets are off. 

Many schools have developed ways to adapt to the changing educational environment by offering flexible processes for potential students. Deadlines have been extended for both application submissions and offer acceptance. Testing policies have become flexible. Some institutions are even offering previously unheard of incentives in what one administrator called an admissions “free for all.”

Despite these changes, colleges and universities are still having a tough time locking down students for the fall semester. Here are the ways COVID-19 is impacting admissions:

K-12 Troubles

Schools were preparing for a shallow candidate pool before the outbreak of COVID-19. Higher education has been bracing for an attendance decline for years, but no one could have predicted a pandemic that could hold up a whole class from matriculating.

Nearly every state has closed the doors on public schools through the end of the school year, but few have publicized detailed plans for seniors to complete needed requirements and graduate. Some leaders are throwing out the rule books to ensure students complete their degrees on time, but already vulnerable students are likely to fall through the cracks.

Even if all 3.7 million high school seniors are able to walk the (likely virtual) stage, they still encounter unprecedented hurdles to apply —and physically get— to college. 

Standardized Testing

Standardized testing centers are closed across the world with ACTs and SATs canceled through at least June. One million high schoolers are missing previously required entrance exams as colleges and universities scramble to waive testing qualifications from their applications or move to a test-optional system of admittance.

Test coordinators like College Board are pursuing creative solutions with an online or at-home version of common exams, but these won’t be available until the fall when students should theoretically already be on campus. Any institution with a test requirement on their application will undoubtedly have students opting to apply for a different school, even if they have to commit to a campus without the benefit of on onsite tour.

Getting a Feel for Campus without Visiting

COVID-19 has upended campus life for almost every college student, including potential recruits. Hallmark college campus tours have ceased or moved online. Admissions officers promote virtual info sessions in lieu of attending more traditional recruitment fairs and host video calls to answer student questions.

Events into the summer have also been canceled. Welcome weekends and events designed to allow admitted students to experience campus and their new college towns are removed from calendars without the ability to create an apt digital substitute. Students hoping to go away for college can no longer take the trip to see their top choice campuses.

Without the ability to experience where they will live for the next four years, students are wary of making the commitment to an institution.

Changing Student Plans

All the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 has many students rethinking their education plans. Some are choosing to stay closer to home rather than attend a faraway institution. Others are opting for a cost-conscious community college. Many are considering a gap year. And some are debating attending college at all.

Different studies show different projections, but colleges could be facing a 20% drop in enrollment for fall 2020, particularly if courses remain online. High school students have already missed events like prom, senior skip day, and graduation; they are leery of beginning college from their childhood bedrooms. Current students also crave a return to their typical college lives and are eager to get back to campus, but the feasibility of a “normal” fall semester is still up in the air.

Outlook for Fall 2020

Despite the continued uncertainty of the coronavirus outbreak, some colleges and universities have released statements of their intention to return to in-person education in the fall. Others have begun speculating about the need for a hybrid semester of online and in-person courses, a late start, a staggered course load, or a number of other possible scenarios. Many institutions have rightfully admitted it is far too early to make any decisions regarding the fall semester.

No one truly knows what we will be facing come August. The virus may die off in the summer, or it might resurge as stay at home orders are lifted and people begin to mingle once again. Predictions for fall cannot surpass the realm of conjecture, and admissions officers (and students) will continue to bear the brunt of the weight of the unknown.

Even if campuses can fully open in August, many will see lower undergraduate populations, fewer international students, and a reduction in out-of-staters. It is certain the coronavirus will impact admissions, but to what extent, and for how long, is still to be determined.