High schools are still awarding diplomas, signs congratulating graduates are popping up in yards again this year and if you brave a trip to the grocery store you’ll see greeting cards featuring caps and gowns.
But Georgia’s in-person high school graduation ceremonies are scuttled in favor of virtual get-togethers as the rite of passage is sacrificed to help contain the spread of COVID-19. Changes to end-of-year testing and other adjustments during the public health emergency means college-bound students and the school officials considering their credentials are working through an application process that was unfathomable as recently as spring break.
It’s important to have a plan when applying for college, said Charles Mendels, founder and head tutor at Access Test Prep in Buckhead, but the mid-March spike of COVID-19 cases in Georgia has waylaid the plans of prospective college students across the state.
“We come up with plans for them, and they work towards a certain test date, and if they don’t quite get what they want, they might take it again,” he said. “But we do have an idea of a schedule and a plan, and now it’s completely disrupted for the vast majority of our students.”
High school students across the country report their college plans changing because of the novel coronavirus pandemic – 45% of high school juniors and younger are now planning to enroll in a college closer to home, and more than 7% say they are thinking about not enrolling or deferring their admission, according to a survey from education consulting firm Niche Partners.
The survey also found 43% of Georgia’s high school students are rethinking their postsecondary options, and a third of current Georgia college students say they might transfer or take time away from school.
College admissions officers have also had to adapt to the new socially distant reality, said Mike Augustine, welcome center and enrollment communications director for Georgia College in Milledgeville.
“Admissions staff members by nature are very people-oriented, and we gain so much energy when we are talking to students at high school visits, during college fairs or presenting to students and families during their campus visits,” he said. “This past March, due to COVID-19, everything changed on a dime, and suddenly we were in a totally online or virtual setting.”
That means ramping up the school’s social media presence and reaching out to students on platforms like Instagram and TikTok.
Parents and students on these platforms are wondering if the closure of schools across the state will hurt their chances of getting into college when some high schools only graded their work for part of the term.
The Georgia Institute of Technology’s admissions department will consider how the pandemic affected each applicants’ high school, Undergraduate Admission Director Rick Clark wrote in a blog post.
“We will not look at all high schools uniformly, but rather take the time to understand context, including how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted that community, school and student,” Clark wrote.
The University of Georgia will take a similar approach, said Senior Associate Director of Admissions Operations and Evaluation in his own blog post.
“For both graduating seniors and for high school 9-11 grade students, we will see these grades and take into account the unusual circumstances that led to these grades,” he said. “Don’t panic about this – focus on being safe, do what you can to study and learn, pass your classes and know that we understand the issues.”
Testing, another major component of college admissions formulas has also become much less certain in recent months. Both major college entry tests, the SAT and ACT, have postponed test dates, and made motions toward offering their tests online.
Delivering high-stakes admission tests online would be unusual, but not unprecedented. The College Board is now administering Advanced Placement tests online, and graduate school tests like the GMAT, LSAT and GRE have all gone online, though more people take the SAT each year, Mendels said.
Students applying for admission to most schools in the University System of Georgia for the fall 2020 semester will not need to submit an SAT or ACT score. The University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology have already admitted freshman classes.
A growing number of colleges are going test-optional, as concerns linger about whether in-person testing will resume in the fall. Those include Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Brenau University in Gainesville and the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick and
The move online represents an attempt by the testing companies to remain relevant after the pandemic lifts, Mendels said, but he doesn’t see the entrance exams going away anytime soon.
“I’m sure there will be some that will say, ‘You know what, this worked for us, we don’t need to go back to testing,’” he said. “But the SAT and ACT are still valuable tools. They provide a level of standardization you just can’t get from school grades. There are so many schools with different grading systems and different teachers and different levels of competitiveness. I wouldn’t want to base a college admissions decision totally on SAT or ACT, but it’s a helpful tool.”
Also helpful for admissions officers are extracurricular activities, the teams, clubs and sports that, during a normal school year, can help distinguish students with similar GPAs and test scores. The disruption of senior year and guidance from public health officials to avoid the types of activities that typically help students stand out will require creativity to shift to alternatives.
Augustine said students should look for ways to use their time productively during this crisis.
“The way a student is involved during this period may just look different, and it will be interesting to see what new kind of new involvement comes out of this situation,” he said. “Maybe the students are fundraising. Maybe they are sewing masks to donate.”