College Admissions and Covid-19

by | Apr 11, 2020

No one has a crystal ball, and economists and epidemiologists are offering wildly different theories about what the future may hold for the current crisis. But I do have a few observations—and perhaps one or two predictions—about what the Covid-19 crisis means in terms of college and college admissions.

College and High School Shutdowns

Colleges were the first “industry” to voluntarily lock down in the face of Covid-19, an action that made sense for several reasons, both humanitarian and economic. Colleges are a bit like cruise ships—buffet-style dining, tight sleeping quarters, shared lavatories, and gyms and entertainment designed to bring people together. Contagious illnesses of every kind, from measles to meningitis, often appear on college campuses first. It was almost certainly a wise move to send kids home from college dorms and campuses, even if many—at least at first—congregated at Starbucks when they got home.

But as many of my former students have told me, their online university education is not a one-to-one substitute for the traditional education and interaction their tuition was paying for. One student recently told me, “As a senior, I’m disappointed. But I’m still getting a Yale degree, and I don’t have to go to class.” As long as the degrees will still be conferred, the complaints will be muted.

And indeed, while some students are hoping for partial rebates for residency/dining plans, very few are seriously contemplating tuition rebates. After all, they’ll still be getting the graduation credits for their classes. But are they learning what they were supposed to be learning?

It’s a question that applies, perhaps with even more urgency, to high school students, who will need to learn certain foundational math and science concepts before they can successfully master later ones.

Wait-lists in times of crisis, and recent NACAC rules changes

Although it’s been more than a century since the last global pandemic, the Great Recession is only a decade past. Unlike my students, who were mostly in Kindergarten in 2008, I remember that time well. And I remember how it affected college admissions.

One family I was working with had a lofty goal, and a workable plan: Send our daughter to MIT by leveraging her competitive tennis. The young woman did everything right—she was a state-ranked tennis player, earning straight-As and a near-perfect SAT score. She got into MIT. 

But by that time, her family had lost $500,000 of their savings and decided that in-state tuition at Berkeley made much more sense.

In the years 2008 to 2010, I saw that story repeated several times—students often turning down elite but very expensive options—thus creating room for those on the waiting-lists. Because the economic turmoil created by Covid-19 seems to surpass that of the “Great Recession,” it’s likely that this year—and perhaps next year, too—we’ll see the same sort of volatility and movement on waiting lists. And recent changes to NACAC (National Association of College Admissions Counselors) rules allow colleges to aggressively “poach” students who already committed to a college on May 1st. This may be a good year for students on waiting lists for private colleges. We’ll see.

What will this mean for UC admissions? 

My prediction is that the number of Californians choosing cheaper UCs over pricier private options will be more or less counter-balanced by out-of-state students not choosing UC campuses—out-of-state tuition for the UCs is very expensive.

I think we’ll see roughly the same pattern for UC waiting lists we’ve seen over the past few years—about a 50% chance (on average) of getting into a UC from the waiting list. In general, UC waiting lists are are much more likely to result in an offer, compared to private colleges, and are definitely worth pursuing.

College admissions and the SAT/ACT

Because recent administrations of the SAT and ACT have been cancelled due to Covid-19 fears, and many high schools are in lockdown mode, some colleges—including the UC system—have announced that they will be more flexible regarding grades and test scores, which is a reasonable and humane response. But many people have profoundly misinterpreted these statements, partly because the media has often misinterpreted them.

Take this headline from the LA Times, for instance: “UC to ease admission requirement: No SAT, no letter grades due to coronavirus.” As far as it goes, that’s correct. Current juniors are not required to submit an SAT, because all of the spring SAT and ACT dates are canceled. And how meaningful are spring semester grades when, for many students, there are no spring semester classes?

But the headline is deeply misleading, because it suggests there will be no SAT scores and no grades. That’s wrong; the UCs are NOT saying that they aren’t going to consider the SAT/ACT, or that they won’t consider grades and GPA in admissions.

They are saying that they will still review applications that are missing these elements. That’s a very different thing from “No SAT, no letter grades.” And when we think about it, how could the UCs not use tests and scores? Are they going to use dice?

In 2017, UCLA received more than 110,000 applications. 53,000+ of those applicants had GPAs above a 4.0! What the media get wrong about UC admissions is that the requirements are almost meaningless to admission. 100,000+ students will meet the requirements, but only 6,000 students will be first-years at UCLA.

The headlines suggest that, as an act of mercy, the UCs will be easier to get into. But in actuality, if students without strong grades or scores are encouraged to apply, due to misleading headlines, the number of applicants could actually rise—and the difficulty of gaining admission to a UC will actually increase.

And if the UCs place more emphasis on non-cognitive factors like challenging family circumstances, including homelessness or trauma, it’s safe to assume that middle- class kids without these challenging circumstances will have to work harder to gain a spot. It may turn out that grades and scores will be more important than they were in previous years, unless you have a truly heartbreaking story to tell.

What we’re learning about distance learning

For years, I’ve been hearing that the future of learning will be online. But I also grew up assured that most of us would get to school on jet-packs. The promises of the future are sometimes oversold.

The past few weeks have demonstrated that, while some kinds of learning are easily adapted to Zoom and Skype—small-group discussions, passive viewing of large lectures, and one-on-one tutoring—other types of learning are not easy to transition to an online format. Unfortunately, it’s the 30 to 40-person classrooms found in high schools and colleges that are tougher to move online. And some high schools and colleges have proven better than others, largely because of different resources.

Students at Bishops and Francis Parker had a break of approximately three days before their schools moved all classes online. Those students have reported to me that the classes work very well; they are missing very little, apart from social contact, in their education.

Well-off public districts, like Poway Unified or San Dieguito Unified, have taken approximately three weeks to move things online—and according to students, they are still struggling to find their footing.

And cash-strapped districts like San Diego Unified have promised that online instruction will begin at the end of April—a delay of about two months. And who knows what that instruction will look like?

There are no crystal balls; no one knows the future. But it’s virtually certain that, someday—whether it’s a matter of weeks or months—we’ll begin our lives again. If we don’t, the Great Depression of the 1930s will look like a minor footnote in American history. And when things return to normal, colleges won’t have any more spots in their freshman class than before. They will still have tough decisions to make.

Students will still need to master algebra to move on to basic science classes like chemistry. Some students will have used these months of crisis profitably, continuing to make progress in math and science, in reading and writing. Other students will not have had the same opportunities.

At Hamilton Education, we’re still watching and waiting, preparing for whatever scenario presents itself. We are ready to teach our traditional small-group classes this summer, either in-person, or online. But if the situation worsens, we’re prepared to ensure that every single student at Hamilton Education will also have access to one-on-one, online tutoring, because we’re convinced that, despite what Yale or UCLA is telling their students, you can’t simply put a camera in front of a teacher in an empty lecture hall and get the same results. You need to adapt, and build more custom-fit approaches.

In a cultural, metaphorical, and literal sense, we’re in the darkness of winter. But we all need to keep in mind that someday—perhaps someday soon—the sun will come out, we will leave our homes, and we’ll want to be prepared for a world that, despite our current lockdown, continues to spin on its axis, so that we can move into the future.