Before the coronavirus slammed the gates on campus visits by prospective students, Serra Sowers had plans to visit seven colleges this spring to help make up her mind.
Like so many milestone moments of her senior year, the pandemic has pushed the process online. Serra, a 17-year-old Florida resident, has had to rely on virtual tours, learning about schools in Zoom chats with college officials.
Strange as those experiences have been, her mother, Ebru Ural, worries how the pandemic might affect her daughter's college experience itself in a few short months.
“We’re dealing with the unknown, and we’re trying to make such a huge decision. She invested the better part of the last year trying to earn acceptance to these institutions,” Ural said, but "we really don’t know what we’re buying right now.”
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The outbreak has upended plans for millions of students, who are taking virtual tours of schools while also dealing with concerns about tuition payments in an economic downturn — and whether campuses will even reopen by the fall.
In efforts to keep enrollment numbers up, colleges are courting students with interactive one-on-one video sessions, and hundreds have given families more time to decide by pushing deposit deadlines from May 1 to June 1. With SAT and ACT exams canceled, ever more schools also are waiving admissions test requirements for next year’s incoming class.
But for all the schools’ efforts, many families say it’s difficult to look forward when students are still finishing high school from home.
Recent surveys have found that large shares of high school seniors plan to take a gap year before starting college or take their first-choice school off the table because they could no longer afford it. Others say they would feel safer attending college closer to home.
“I think the leash might have gotten shorter, frankly,” Ural said. “I feel like a little bit of the air has been taken out of our balloon.”
Her daughter Serra said the virtual sessions with colleges have been helpful but have been no replacement for seeing campuses in person.
“I had a Zoom call last weekend with a university and found that it’s very awkward,” she said. “When you visit a campus you’re able to ... talk to people you hadn’t met before or that aren’t university-presented to you.”
Some colleges already are planning for the possibility that the fall semester might have to be postponed or begin online. Boston University, for one, has said that if reopening is not possible until January, a summer 2021 term would replace academics planned for fall 2020.
About 3.7 million students are expected to graduate from high school this year, with nearly 70% expected to start college in the fall.
High school senior Lauren Kohler, of Newtown, Connecticut, was planning to spend spring break visiting her top three choices — the University of South Carolina, Florida State University and the University of Massachusetts. She saw South Carolina last year but is now is relying on virtual tours and friends’ impressions for Florida State, and a walk-through of the deserted UMass Amherst campus for the others.
“I’m a big believer that you can walk on a campus and say, ‘This is my school,’ or ‘This is not my school,’” said Kohler, 18. “It really depends on the feeling and the type of people that are there.”
Grace Malloy had hoped at least to eliminate some contenders by seeing them in person this spring. Instead, an overwhelming array remains on the table for the 17-year-old from Forest Grove, Oregon.
Malloy did get in a visit to Long Island University Post in New York, but her spring break visits to Nebraska Wesleyan University and the University of Northern Colorado were canceled, along with hopes of seeing Molloy College and Hofstra University in New York, Muhlenberg College and Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, and Drake University in Iowa.
“Decision-making is not my strong suit,” she said after completing her third virtual visit of the week, in groups ranging from six to more than 100 participants.