The COVID-19 Impact on College Admissions

by Rachel Bishop | April 14, 2020
The COVID-19 Impact on College Admissions

Part one of a three-part series on how admissions pros can adapt to recent changes in the space to recruit students.

What will the COVID-19 impact on college admissions be?

Before COVID-19, or the coronavirus, most colleges were already facing a lot of financial pressure. For example, during the last decade, state budgets have been cut. Further, institutions have had a long history of unsustainable tuition discounting practices. That, along with falling birth rates in the United States, have made postsecondary recruitment highly competitive. And now, there is the COVID-19 impact on college admissions, which will change everything.

Coronavirus makes projecting enrollment difficult for the 2020-2021 academic year. Statewide orders to stay home have halted travel for prospective students, who can no longer visit campuses for interviews and tours. Colleges have canceled in-person events for admitted but not yet enrolled students. Of course, these events are crucial to enrollment yield. Even if prospective students were able to come to campus, the move to online learning means that there are no bustling dining halls or bookstores to visit, no face-to-face classes to observe, and no student leaders to answer questions. Colleges must find new ways to stay in close contact with prospects and provide virtual events that are meaningful, interactive, and engaging.

What does this mean for college admissions?

1. In-person events are moving to a virtual setting.

Institutions are moving in-person events online. Most schools already offer virtual tours (videos that provide a snapshot of the campus) on their websites. Now, many are looking to greatly improve and promote their videos or quickly create them to begin with. Also, institutions are using virtual meeting or webinar software (Zoom, WebEx, GoToWebinar, Skype, etc.) for one-on-one interviews with students as well as Q&A panels for prospects or admitted students and their families. Admit days may now be live-streamed via webinar software or social media.

In a recent national survey of enrollment leaders, EAB found that colleges are adding the following virtual options for applicants in response to travel limits: [1]

  • 62% are adding video conferences,
  • 54% are promoting their virtual tour,
  • 46% are adding social media platform live events,
  • 43% are increasing the number of social media live events already scheduled, and
  • 26% are adding a virtual tour.

2. May 1 deposit deadlines are shifting.

Many, but not all, institutions have pushed the May 1 enrollment deposit date to June 1. Some are considering pushing it back further.[2] In effect, this can give colleges more time to plan and prepare for moving their in-person events online. Further, it gives institutions and high school counselors more time to communicate with families.

Also, as the unemployment rate climbs, colleges and universities will be faced with many more financial aid appeals. But the amount of available aid is highly difficult to project, given unknown fall enrollment numbers and families’ quickly changing levels of need.

3. Entrance exam testing (SAT and ACT) is being postponed.

At this time, ACT and College Board have halted SAT/ACT testing and plan to resume in June (but could possibly be delayed further). Lack of access to college entrance exams gives momentum to the “test-optional” movement, and it is likely that more schools will waive testing requirements for the class of 2021 and beyond.

4. Students will need greater support.

With most high schools having moved to online education and some having closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 year, students will face many challenges. Some students are now earning pass or fail grades or will graduate with an incomplete transcript. Other students may struggle to obtain final transcripts if school buildings are closed. Further, without easy access to a school counselor, students may struggle with match and fit decisions, understanding financial aid award letters, and completing required forms. Colleges who can step in with increased support will build better relationships with their applicants.

5. More students might defer enrollment (or change their minds entirely).

Already, closures due to COVID-19 are having a large impact on family income. A recent survey from the Pew Center (conducted March 19-24, 2020) found that 33% of all households have at least one person who has either lost a job or taken a pay cut. Young, Hispanic, and low-income households are the hardest hit. In turn, students and families are worried about their ability to afford college. They also worry about their own health safety of crowded campuses should they resume this fall. Likely, more students will consider deferring enrollment for one year, hoping that their financial outlook will be more secure and any virus-linked health precautions will more stable. Students, particularly those who had bad experiences with the sudden demand to leave campus, are considering postsecondary options that are closer to home and/or less expensive.

A recent national survey of high school seniors conducted by Art & Science Group found that students accepted to a four-year school are now rethinking their postsecondary plans as a result of COVID-19.[3] When asked whether their four-year plans had changed in response to the coronavirus, only 20% of respondents still plan to enroll in their first-choice school. Around 63% of students stated that they still plan to enroll in a bachelor’s-level program but they might not be able to attend their first-choice school, and 17% of students report they have already changed plans as a result.

Of the students who are concerned about their ability to attend their first-choice school...

  • 21% stated it may no longer be affordable,
  • 17% are still waiting on an admission notification,
  • 12% stated they have health concerns about attending their first-choice program, and
  • 5% of students stated that they did not like how their first-choice school handled the coronavirus crisis.

Of the students who have already changed their plans...

  • 35% plan to take a gap year,
  • 35% plan to enroll part-time,
  • 7% plan to enroll in a two-year school,
  • 6% plan to work full time,
  • 4% plan to enroll in a technical college/certificate program, and
  • 13% don’t know

Moving into the digital space

To stand out against competitors, colleges and universities need to rethink how they interact with prospects. Without in-person visits, the quality and quantity of each institution’s digital capabilities have become deciding factors in students’ postsecondary decisions.

A positive outcome of increasing virtual interaction with students is that colleges will place a greater focus on meeting prospects where they already are. Teens, for example, spend an average of nine hours a day on their digital devices.[4] Right now, colleges and universities have a great opportunity to think big, be creative, and reach students and parents in new ways they may have never considered before. Ultimately, these efforts will better serve all students in the future, especially working adults, those from further geographic areas, and those without the financial means to visit campus in person.

The change of conversation control

The shift to the digital world has also changed how conversations originate. In the past, colleges and universities could control the flow of information by sending out printed brochures to homes and making in-person visits to high schools and college fairs. But today, it is the students and their families who make first contact by searching the web and social media for information. Institutions may not know who is searching for them and what information those students ultimately find. This is especially true now that prospective or current students, parents, and alumni can all post their own personal experiences on social media. For example, it is possible to receive an application from a student with whom a college has had no known previous interaction.

But when used effectively, social media and other tools can provide greater access for students and a greater ability for colleges and universities to find them. Digital tools also provide very rich quantitative and qualitative data that can be used to hone recruiting and messaging as well as to better inform enrollment management. The important thing to remember in moving to digital is that your target audience is not uniformly using one or two common channels. They are spread across many different social media apps, websites, and streaming services. Therefore, it’s important to 1) have a strong presence on many different digital platforms, and 2) do your research to determine how (and what) students are learning about you.

COVID-19 impact on college admissions
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The COVID-19 impact on college admissions will be unprecedented. How can you use technology to keep students engaged with your institution and encourage them to remain committed? Download our free e-book below for tips, techniques, and case study examples.

* Special thanks to our guest author, Alice Anne Bailey, PhD, a Higher Education Consultant.


[1] Rhyneer, M. (March 16, 2020). Survey results: How enrollment leaders are responding to COVID-19. EAB.

[2] Hoover, E. (2020, March 18). Here’s Why More Colleges Are Extending Deposit Deadlines — and Why Some Aren’t. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

[3] Art & Science Group. (2020, March). Impact of the covid-19 pandemic on college - going high school seniors. Baltimore, MD: Art and Science Group

[4] Ruffalo Noel Levitz & OmniUpdate. (2019). 2019 E-expectations trend report. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

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