Coronavirus Crisis Changes College Admissions Process

Melinda Reed, Layout Editor-in-Chief

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the world into uncertainty. For high school students, this has certain implications: virtual learning, adapted AP exams, and the cancellation of school events like prom. For high school juniors in particular, one process has changed dramatically: college admissions.

Notoriously difficult, time-consuming, and expensive, the college admissions process is a hallmark of many students’ academic careers. High schoolers know the system to be complicated, including everything from essay-writing to taking the SAT or ACT to gathering teacher recommendations.

Of course, with the pandemic, much of college admissions is changing, prompting questions about whether this institution of American education is really as unchangeable as it used to seem.

For many students, the most pressing issue is that of affordability. College tuition has skyrocketed in the last two decades, according to U.S. News and World Reports. Simply applying to schools has become expensive with exorbitant application fees. Some universities have recognized this issue and are expanding their financial aid programs to help more students. Schools like Princeton University and Amherst College have adopted no-loan financial aid packages that rely on grants to cover need instead of loans. At Rice University in Houston, the Rice Investment program covers full tuition for students with family incomes below $130,000 per year.

However, the coronavirus crisis may have thrown a wrench in this progress. The lockdown has forced businesses to shut down, lay off or furlough employees, or both. Although the numbers for April have not yet been released, economists estimate that the U.S. unemployment rate will be around 16%, with 30 million Americans filing for unemployment since the middle of March. Family incomes for the college classes of 2025, 2026, and years afterwards may look very different due to the rising unemployment. Since financial aid packages are calculated based on family incomes and tax returns, students may qualify for more money in the coming years as the global economy recovers. This raises concerns about universities’ abilities to cover the influx of students in financial need. 

Beyond the financial aspects of college admissions, the actual application process is changing as well. Schools are emphasizing that aspects of the application, such as grades in the spring semester, will be considered in context of the coronavirus crisis. This is good news for Morris Hills juniors: it is very likely that the schools you are applying to will accept our new grade band system for the fourth quarter.

Certain schools, such as Harvard University and Williams College, are going test-optional in the fall of 2020. This means that SAT and ACT scores are not required for the class of 2021. Other schools have been test-optional for years now, recognizing that students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds have access to preparatory classes and coaches, which can help them achieve better scores. 

Other colleges still require standardized test scores but will view them in context of the current shutdown. “We know you might not have the opportunity to take these tests multiple times,” said Karen Richardson, dean of admissions at Princeton. “SAT or ACT test scores are only one part of our holistic review.”

This may be comforting to many students, but it still begs the question: if SAT and ACT scores are only one part of a greater application process, and many schools are getting rid of the requirement entirely, then how necessary are they?

The two tests have long been staples of the American education system, with an entire industry built around them. Classes, coaches, tutors, books, and more are considered important to performing well on the SAT and ACT. Of course, this system puts students who cannot afford these at a disadvantage, their scores standing in comparison with the rest of the world’s. With high school transcripts, grades can be viewed in context of the student’s personal obligations and academic opportunities, something that is lost with standardized test scores. 

In the past, the college admissions process has been known for its rigidity, but this crisis has shown just how flexible schools are willing to be. While there are unique circumstances that have prompted this change, it can guide colleges in making a better process in the future.