Coronavirus and College Admissions

Pandemics are disruptive to society; the effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus are likely to be profound for students and colleges alike. Some parents are newly unemployed. Many families will suffer profound and irreversible financial losses, making paying for college difficult or impossible.

College students who were living in dorms and attending lectures are now stuck at home. High school seniors who planned to make final campus visits to decide which school to attend will have to settle for “virtual,” on-line tours. High school juniors are watching summer opportunities vanish.

Yet the calendar is inexorable. Although colleges are making minor adjustments (discussed below), they intend to open next Fall – if only virtually – because they will founder if they do not. Some colleges may close in the years to come because of declining enrollment. Indeed, I have not posted to this blog in some time because I have been laboring on a long-form article exploring how to find bargains in small colleges. I am revising that article to account for the changing financial environment for those colleges.

For now, it seems most useful to share some of the information being discussed by colleges and my college counseling colleagues. We begin with those students who are in the eye of the storm.

Current college students

By now you are probably living at home and taking classes online. Focus on your financial condition first. If you can no longer afford tuition, reach out to your college’s financial aid office immediately. Staff will be available to receive your query even if the campus aid office is shuttered. You can also fill out a FAFSA for this year until June 30, 2020. If you are reading this after June 30, check online to see whether that deadline has been extended.

Colleges are in a huge bind with respect to financial aid. They know that many students are at risk of not returning next semester because of new financial pressures. The old saying that “a bird in the hand may be worth two in the bush” applies; some colleges will settle for less tuition to retain your business. The only way to find out is to ask. When you do, submit current information about your parents’ financial situation, and your own. Note that some colleges may give relief only until they are able to welcome students back on campus.

Finally, if you are already paying student loans, payments are being suspended and interest waived. See (again, if you are reading this well after it was posted, check for current conditions). For a more comprehensive look at the financial aid implications of coronavirus, see

If you must transfer to a local college or even drop out altogether, finish the semester at your current school and ask for a leave of absence going forward. Do not forget to obtain a transcript.

If your college evicted you from your housing because of the virus, do not expect a tuition refund; colleges are still providing instruction and awarding credits and degrees. However, keep an eye out for partial refunds of housing and meal plan fees. Some colleges are giving these voluntarily – others are the targets of class-action lawsuits. See (generally); (class action lawsuit). For what it’s worth, my bet is that the universities lose those lawsuits, both in monetary terms and in damage to their reputations.

For those of you attending small, private colleges, consider paying your tuition at the very last moment. A few small colleges were on the brink of closing this semester. You can expect that number to increase in the Fall when some of them fail to meet enrollment targets. If a college declares bankruptcy, your odds of recovering tuition paid for the next semester will be low. Your best source of information on your college’s financial condition is your campus and local newspapers.

Are you able to live at home next semester, or even all next year?  The current consensus is that many colleges will open only “virtually” through Fall 2020. Families need to assume that colleges may remain shuttered until a treatment or vaccine is found; in the worst-case scenario, both Fall and Spring of 2020 may be conducted online only.

Students should properly equip themselves to participate in on-line education. Parents should provide passwords (even if they create a separate one for the student). Students having trouble connecting to classes should reach out to their professors. Purchase a webcam now (there is a rush on them, and you may need to pay between $50 and $100 for yours), and learn to use it; some professors are demanding a video feed so they can watch students while proctoring exams.

Note that many colleges are announcing variations on “pass/fail” grading. Check your college for details — when obtaining grades is an option, consider doing so if you believe that you are doing well in the course. Although it is early days, some professional schools have indicated that they will not penalize students for “pass” instead of a letter grade for periods when COVID-19 is active. See “With Coronavirus Disrupting College, Should Every Student Pass?”, New York Times, April 3, 2020, (free viewing).

Finally, consider whether you wish to transfer to another school to save tuition. You are paying a lot of money to live with other bright students, to take advantage of top-tier research opportunities, to participate in the arts or athletics, and, perhaps, to study abroad. Alas, you will not receive any of those benefits going forward for the indefinite future.

A decision to switch colleges is complex – consider the following variables:

  • the length of time left before you graduate;
  • your family’s finances;
  • your ability to win admission to an affordable college (remember, your financial aid does not transfer with you, and it is harder to win financial aid as a transfer student);
  • your career ambitions and the prestige of your current college;
  • the odds of your current college re-admitting you if you change your mind and/or the virus makes an early exit;
  • the available and quality of the online education in your area; and
  • your family’s expectations.

High school seniors

You are living in interesting times, with worries and opportunities. If you are pleased with your offers of admission, and can afford to attend, then accepting an offer is perfectly fine. Of course, you must be ready for many of the issues discussed above with respect to living at home and attending classes online.

If you are financially unable to attend, follow the strategy outlined above for current students.

We start with the elephant in your room:  will colleges rescind your offers if you are unable to complete prerequisites this semester?  If your school was completely closed, then you do not need to worry. However, if your school is offering classes, even online, you need to do what you can to keep your grades up.

Your high school may move to pass/fail grading. This is probably good news – I have not seen any college announce that it will rescind offers for students who “pass.”  The University of California just announced that it will accept “passing” high school grades for this semester. See

Fortunately, colleges have a huge incentive to be “flexible” in this area because students whose offers they rescind may not be replaced by willing candidates. The size of colleges’ waitlists will bear on this issue, so you can check your intended college’s statistics. In addition, the negative press which might accompany reports of rescissions of offers could be devastating.

This is neither a prediction nor a promise, but unless you execute a complete swan dive you should be okay. We can expect private schools to be more flexible on this front than state institutions.

Two issues are still up in the air. First, the deadline for accepting admissions offers is May 1. However, over 200 schools – perhaps mindful of the chaos accompanying the pandemic and eager not to lose students who are still weighing competing offers – are extending their deadlines until June 1. There are two lists of college deadlines available now, but you should also check with your intended college:;

Second, the virus has disrupted AP exams. You can find updates from the College Board, including dates of examinations, here: In-person testing has been replaced by on-line exams. Those colleges which have announced policies on whether to accept AP tests have indicated that credit will be granted under the same standards. However, those colleges may provide students with supplementary study materials to “catch up” to the next course in their curriculum (this is mostly a STEM issue). Check with your intended college for details.  

You may have noted that I previously stated that you live in interesting times, with worries and opportunities. Where are the opportunities, you ask?

Well, here’s one, but it is a longshot. If you can afford the colleges which have accepted you, might you do better by reopening discussions regarding financial aid with several of them?  After all, it is likely that your first semester will not offer the benefits discussed previously. Can you call colleges that accepted you and ask for more financial aid?

Perhaps. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some colleges are willing to compete in this fashion. Part of their willingness stems from a legal settlement where colleges agreed not to abide by previous agreements that had prohibited them from soliciting students after the May 1 deadline. See e.g.,

The Wall Street Journal reports one such attempt to reopen bargaining for financial aid:

Troy Nevins, a senior at Liberty Common High School in Fort Collins, Colo., doesn’t plan on making a final decision until he hears back from Stanford University. But he already started nudging other schools on financial-aid offers. “Smaller schools especially are willing to bargain,” he said.

After Mr. Nevins 19 years old, crossed John Brown University off his list, he said he heard from an admissions representative willing to negotiate. “She was very quick to say, ‘This number isn’t final’ and ‘we can…’ and ‘would there be…,’ ” he said.

A spokeswoman for John Brown, in Siloam Springs, Ark., said the school initiates appeals if families indicate price is a factor in turning down an offer.

“Coronavirus Creates College Uncertainty, Admissions Gets Easier,” Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2020. (behind paywall).

Of course, it is a big step down in admissions difficulty from Stanford to just about any other school, so it appears that this student has superior credentials (or a whole lot of self-confidence).

Selective colleges with huge waitlists will not engage in such bargaining, but others might. Again, the most fertile ground will be the smaller, private colleges that have a great incentive to preserve their enrollments and the flexibility to make individual decisions without committing to a larger group.

If this idea appeals to you, either by choice or necessity, check your spam filters and inbox for e-mails from colleges that accepted you. There may be a surprise offer or request for a conversation about aid. If not, you can always initiate one. Be respectful when you do so. If you are successful, please do not give quotes to the media – the Internet has a very long memory.

High school juniors

You also have worries and opportunities, but the picture looks brighter for you than for college-bound seniors.

Here are a few issues to focus on. Standardized testing is currently on hold. The College Board (SAT) and ACT have canceled test sessions in April and May. Both tests are slated for June, but that can – and almost certainly will – change. Indeed, there is an excellent chance that no tests will be administered until August or September. This means that testing sessions will be in high demand. You should sign up now for the June tests – both organizations will either reschedule canceled tests or refund your testing fees.

What happens if tests are delayed until late in the Fall?  Nobody really knows. Colleges will probably have to wait for test results, delaying their own deadlines for Early Decision admissions.

If they choose not to do so, they will end up joining the trend toward “test-optional” admissions policies. For more details on these policies, see Since I last visited that topic in July 2018, close to another 100 colleges have switched to test-optional.

This includes some big names, such as Tufts, that are switching on a “temporary” basis to evaluate whether standardized tests are a useful measure of educational quality. And here is some breaking news:  the University of California and California State University systems are suspending standardized test requirements for the 2021 admissions season. See;

Another important development is that college campuses are closed, meaning that all student visits are virtual. This has two implications for college admissions. First, of course, you may have to wait for some time to evaluate which colleges are the best fit for you. Second, and more urgent, in-person visits were an important way to “demonstrate interest” to colleges. For now, focus on demonstrating that interest by signing up for colleges’ e-mail lists and taking their virtual tours. Given that college fairs have been canceled, this may be your only way to get on a college’s radar. The good news is that college visits are expensive, and it is less expensive to visit just the colleges that accept you.

Finally, your summer plans have almost certainly been canceled. For many students, that includes research, an internship, a summer academic session, a job, or volunteering. Some of those opportunities are irreplaceable, but one may not be – volunteering. In the absence of other measures of dedication and ability, colleges may rely even more heavily on resume items that demonstrate a commitment to community.

The challenge is to find a way to contribute without violating shelter in place orders. Most opportunities involve delivery of food and other necessary supplies to the elderly or assisting (without getting too close) medical workers. Also consider creative work — writing, robotics, and the like, where you can display or at least describe a tangible body of work.

The best news of all for high school juniors is that college admissions are about to become a bit less competitive. A significant number of international students are likely to shy away from the U.S., the country currently suffering from the largest number of COVID-19 infections. Further, and it hurts to say it, fewer students will be able to afford college, making for less competition for those who can. Finally, as I will discuss in my upcoming article, colleges desperate to increase enrollment are likely to relax their admissions standards and/or increase their financial aid for “desirable” students.

Good luck, and watch this space for updates.

If you are a parent or student living in Tucson, please note that I am one of a handful of independent consultants who live and work here.  Please see The Tucson Advantage for why that fact matters.  Note that I will only be working remotely until our Health Department gives the “all clear” on social distancing.  Fortunately, I have experience working remotely, and will make it . . . work.    

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