Karen Macias had hoped to visit colleges during spring break, but the coronavirus outbreak meant she spent the week picking up extra hours at her Walgreens job. Credit: Gissel Cardenas

Karen Macias had been planning to spend her spring break touring college campuses. The 18-year-old senior at Heritage High School, in Menifee, California, had just been accepted to her dream school, University of California, San Diego, and wanted to visit that campus and a few others before deciding where to spend the next four years.

But with the coronavirus shutting down campuses across the nation, Macias instead spent spring break picking up extra hours at her customer service associate job at Walgreens while customers stocked up on medicine, food and toilet paper. And with her high school closed until at least April 30, Macias is also missing out on a chance to have face time with her school counselor, Melina Gonzalez, who has been a crucial source of information in helping her plan her future.

“I am a first-generation college student, so throughout my high school I’ve had a lot of help with the college process,” Macias said. She’d been counting on getting assistance making sense of financial aid awards from different schools through AVID, a college and career readiness class she takes at her high school. “Because school’s closed,” she said, “we weren’t able to do that.”

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For seniors like Macias, the wave of school shutdowns has come at a particularly difficult time. It has disrupted college tours and canceled standardized tests. Students planning to enroll at community colleges are in many cases just starting their applications, sometimes without access to the internet at home. And with high schools closed, students can’t get in-person guidance from counselors, leaving many to make big decisions about their futures on their own. That has put pressure on colleges to extend deadlines by which students must decide if they’ll attend.

Gonzalez, the school counselor at Heritage High, said she’s most worried about her students who don’t have support at home. April is when she sits down with students and parents to help them understand financial aid award letters and answer any other questions they have. “This is a really crucial time because they have to make a decision,” she said.

Related: Why aren’t more counselors trained in college admissions?

Given the uncertainty, some universities have decided to push back their admissions-deposit deadlines from May 1. Oregon State University was one of the first to extend its deadline by a month to June 1; more than 150 other institutions have followed suit. “We simply made a decision we thought was in the best interest of our prospective students and their families, and we encouraged others to do the same,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost of enrollment management at Oregon State.

Some students are also advocating to push back the deadline. Julia Finke, a senior who attends two Norfolk, Virginia, high schools, the magnet Governor’s School for the Arts and Maury High School, started a petition  asking colleges to give seniors more time. As of March 19, the petition had almost 6,500 signatures. Finke said she started the petition after her plans to visit 10 schools were canceled because of the coronavirus. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t be so great if national decision day was pushed back to June 1 to just give us a little bit of breathing room?’” she said.

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Some schools argue that they need to adhere to current deadlines in order to keep things like orientation and housing running smoothly. The University of California, where Macias applied, has decided to keep the May 1 deadline for first-year students in place at its nine undergraduate campuses. “Maintaining current, well-established timeframes and deadlines will ensure waitlist admission notifications proceed in a timely manner,” Sarah McBride, media and communications strategist, wrote in an email.

She added that UC campuses will exercise as much flexibility as possible for students with unique challenges, and families should reach out to individual campuses directly for any specific requests. She said the University of California will also make a decision soon on what accommodations will be made for high school seniors who might not meet UC admissions requirements due to missing their last semester of high school.

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April is also a pivotal time for students planning to attend community colleges, said Vanessa Goulart, a school counselor at Fremont High School in San Jose, California. Her school often holds orientations with representatives from local community colleges as well as application workshops. “These are the students who need a little bit more of that in-person, one-on-one support,” said Goulart.

Oregon State University was one of the first schools to extend its admissions-deposit deadline from May 1 to June 1. Credit: AP /Rick Bowmer

Goulart’s district is providing Chromebooks to all students and wifi hotspots to those who don’t have access to the internet at home. But not all school districts are able to provide technology.

Dixie Vega, a senior at Heritage High School, has already been accepted to California State University, San Marcos, where she wants to study early childhood development. She relies on the internet at school to stay on top of her academics and her college application process but, she said, “I don’t have good internet access here at home.” Without internet, she can’t check on the status of potential scholarships and information about her college applications. “This is not the way I thought the second semester of senior year would go,” she added.

Other students are worried not just about what comes next after high school but also about simply making it through. If they are missing certain credits, or the required number of school days, will seniors still be able to graduate in June? States have not made policies clear on this, since there is no certainty about when the crisis might end and how much instructional time students will have missed.

Related: School counselors keep kids on track. Why are they first to be cut?

Standardized testing has also been thrown into disarray. The College Board, which administers the SAT, cancelled the May 2, 2020, test and will be reviewing whether to hold June 6 testing. Many individual testing sites made the decision to cancel the SAT held on March 13. The organization, which also administers Advanced Placement tests that allow students to receive college credit, announced it in lieu of in-person tests students could take those exams online at home. The ACT test, meanwhile, has been rescheduled from April 4 to June 13.

“Even the most seasoned enrollment managers and the best consultants with the most sophisticated models don’t have any way to project what’s going to happen”

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Flynn Baird, a junior at Ingraham High School in Seattle, was planning to take the SATs in March for the second time. He took the SAT offered at his school earlier in the month, but doesn’t think he did very well. “I was planning on applying early action to a few schools, so I don’t know how many more chances I have to take the test,” he said. “I really hope colleges next year will understand all the crap that is going on right now and be more lenient.”

Some universities have already waived the testing requirements for the class of 2021. Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, for instance, announced on Wednesday that it would not require SAT or ACT scores in admissions for next fall because of uncertainty around when testing might resume.

Some advocates say that could be one bright spot: The test cancellations could force more institutions to experiment with test optional policies, at least for next year. Currently, more than 1,000 colleges and universities do not require students to submit SAT or ACT scores, and the tests have been criticized for serving as poor indicators of college success and for exacerbating inequities.

“That could be really clarifying for us right now, as a profession,” said Marie Bigham, executive director of ACCEPT, a nonprofit that promotes equity in college admissions. “If everyone’s going to test optional or test blind for the next year, what will that tell us about the necessity of testing? And so I think that this could be really clarifying and useful in that way.”

She added that it’s frustrating that “the places with the least resources seem to be the ones being most creative and student-centered, and the places with the most resources, with a few exceptions, are finding solace in that May 1 deadline.”

Related: Rural students often go unnoticed by colleges. Will virtual counseling put them on the map?

College officials, meanwhile, say they are trying to be accommodating. But there are many considerations. Heath Einstein, dean of admissions at Texas Christian University, said many colleges face the dual challenge of helping prospective students and supporting their current students. And they are largely in the dark about how the crisis could affect students’ decisions about where, or whether, to enroll. “Even the most seasoned enrollment managers and the best consultants with the most sophisticated models don’t have any way to project what’s going to happen,” he said.

“If everyone’s going to test optional or test blind for the next year, what will that tell us about the necessity of testing? And so I think that this could be really clarifying and useful in that way.”

In a survey of 300 students released March 19, a quarter said the coronavirus had prompted them to rethink their college choices. Of those who said they were reconsidering their options, 33 percent said they wanted to be closer to home and 29 percent said they feared losing tuition money.

Many colleges that rely on international students may also see dips in enrollment depending on the outlook for travel and on perceptions abroad of the U.S. response to the pandemic. “At this point, it does not appear we’re exhibiting a lot of leadership, let alone competence, in our approach,” said Boeckenstedt of Oregon State.

Many students and educators believe that the coronavirus-related disruptions are likely to be temporary. But some have more dire predictions.

“Are colleges even going to be ready to open back up in August?” asked Einstein. “All of these lingering issues will sort of create this backlog that we need to sort out, and we don’t know when this is going to end … At some point, it has to be part of the conversation.”

Macias, the high school senior in Menifee, knows she’ll make a decision one way or the other about college. But her senior year is nothing like she imagined it would be, she says. She is the high school’s salutatorian and was expected to make a speech at graduation. Now there’s uncertainty about whether that ceremony will take place at all.

“I was really looking forward to speaking at my graduation because I worked so hard to get to that moment,” she said. “It’s just really disappointing.”

 This story on the coronavirus and college admissions was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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