College: At Oyster River, it’s nearly a guarantee that graduating students will move onto a two or four year program, if not longer. According to ORHS’ counseling office, 77% of students moved on to a four-year program last year, while 11% of students went to a two-year program. The arduous process of researching schools, writing essays, and filling out applications has become characteristic of senior year. In that way, ORHS students have come to build expectations around admissions and what their experience will be like. However, the Class of 2021 didn’t have that luxury this year. Already a turbulent and formidable environment, COVID-19 sent a shockwave through the world of postsecondary education like it had never seen before.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The fall of 2019 saw that year’s seniors gearing up for the college process, just like any other year. It wasn’t until most applications were sent out that things started to change. COVID-19 hit the U.S. hard in March, just around the time that the class of 2020 was starting to hear back from their schools.
According to Kim Cassamas, an ORHS school counselor, this had a huge impact, not on college admissions itself, but on the decisions students made. “It was pretty scary for our seniors [in 2020] because they were trying to go to college, but hearing that it was going to be different.”
By “different,” Cassamas is referring to online learning. In order to prevent the spread of the virus, universities across the country were forced to transition to a remote model, which restricted students’ access to the “full college experience.” This simultaneously caused a disruption for students already enrolled in a school, and for students who had yet to decide. The result of this dilemma brought the most notable, and immediate, impact on students planning to apply in 2021.
“We had a decent amount of 2020 students decide to take a gap year, or just do a semester off,” said Cassamas. ”And some students who were planning on going to college locally were debating whether or not to live on campus. A lot of students felt it would be better to wait until COVID-19 died down before fully entering college.”
Across the country, a similar phenomenon was occuring. With so many students putting off applying or attending, however, a new issue was starting to unfold. When COVID-19 did die down, and the class of 2020 started to apply again, they would join the already-existing application pool of the class of 2021.
Marlee Yoder (‘21) is one such student who realized what that meant for her college application. “I convinced myself that there wasn’t really a point applying to any reach schools. I would consider myself an average student- at least in terms of Oyster River’s standards- so I was worried that applying to any reach schools this year would just be a waste of money, because a lot of people had either deferred last year, or decided to take a gap year, so a lot of pretty competitive schools had even more applications than usual.”
Yoder went on to say, “Those schools are traditionally competitive and already have low acceptance rates. With more applicants, that only decreased acceptance even further.”
Ella Stasko (‘21) is another senior who experienced the same thing as Yoder. Stasko was aware, before applying to college, that schools were looking for more than just good grades and an extracurricular activity. As a strong student who is very involved in the community, she put a lot of thought into the schools she applied to and what she wanted her “reach schools” to be.
“I didn’t realize how different the playing field actually was until I started applying. Then, I started hearing back. I got deferred and waitlisted from some schools that I like to think, in a normal year, I could’ve gotten into.” Stasko went on to explain that some of the schools she applied to, that had once had an acceptance rate of around 30%, dropped to 4% by the time she had applied. Another example is Columbia University, which, according to a CBS News article titled “Ivy League acceptance rates hit ‘shocking’ lows amid pandemic upheaval,” had its acceptance rate drop from 6.1% to 3.7%, the lowest it’s ever been.
The blame, however, shouldn’t be placed on the class of 2020. Faced with two poor decisions, going to college amidst a global pandemic or deferring for a year, last year’s seniors didn’t feel like they had much of a choice. To make matters worse, some universities weren’t as forgiving about the sudden change to society as others.
Take Harvard, for example. In an article published by the National Review titled “Harvard to Implement Online Learning for All Students, Tuition Remains $50,000,” the school announced that “it will implement online learning for all courses during the coming academic year, while tuition will remain at about $50,000.” For those who are unfamiliar with Harvard’s tuition rates, this amount is the same as it would be every other, normal year. The same article shared that another Ivy, Princeton, would be reducing its tuition rate, but only by ten percent. That brought the cost down from $53,890 to $48,501.
John Moore, a member of the Georgetown University Board of Advisors and Regional Chairman of the Georgetown University Alumni Admissions Program, shared that schools across the country struggled with the tuition versus operations dilemma. According to Moore, “The trend is that college is becoming less and less affordable for students, and with this year in particular, universities had to make a tough call.”
This effect was further compounded by something that few who aren’t as entrenched in the world of college admissions are aware of: outside of this past year, college enrollment has actually been going down.
Moore explained that, “What we are seeing is a buffer year, where there’s been a huge, but finite, increase in the amount of students applying to college. The problem with that, especially because enrollment has been decreasing, is that there are fewer resources available for those that need them.”
Looking to the future, Moore we may see this “buffer” continue for another year or so before numbers start to decline again. According to “Knocking at the College Door,” a four year report published in December 2020 by the Western Interstate Commision for Higher Education (WICHE), the number of high school graduates will peak in the 2020’s, and then begin to steadily decline until 2037. With a drop in high school graduates comes a drop in college enrollment that will correlate with the end of the impact left by COVID-19.
All in all, uncertainty in the realm of higher education will continue to exist long after COVID-19 becomes a distant memory. Though it played a significant role in the admissions process this year, the global pandemic only served to highlight the growing issues colleges will have to face.
That can be scary, especially to those who have yet to graduate high school, and haven’t even started thinking about it yet. For these students, both Cassamas and Moore offered words of encouragement and advice.
“There is a school out there for you,” said Cassamas. “It can be daunting, but if you take the time to research, you can find a school that will meet whatever your needs are. It’s up to you whether or not you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond.”
Moore shared a similar sentiment, stating, “It pays off to do your research. Things are going to be changing in the next couple of years, so students shouldn’t be afraid to advocate for themselves and really narrow down where they want to be. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
-Megan Deane (’21)