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The COVID College Choice: How To Pick A College During A Global Pandemic

BrennanBarnard
Campus closures at colleges and universities across the country are spreading as fast as the novel coronavirus itself. While higher education has previously endured national emergencies (think 9/11/01) and weathered various crises (fires, floods, and flu), the timing and scope of COVID-19 are unprecedented. College admission is certainly not immune to the impact of this disease and it is having very real consequences for enrollment managers and the students whom they hope to attract. 

Over the next month, high school seniors throughout the country and world are receiving admission decisions and will have to choose the school in which they will enroll. In a normal year, applicants who have multiple acceptances typically weigh their options and, if they have the resources, visit each campus they are seriously considering. For students who might not have the financial means to pay their way to visit schools, some colleges provide funds to make this possible. Students often attend admitted student programs and might tour the campus again, attend a class, stay overnight and have the opportunity to meet their future classmates. 

However, this is not a normal year. As a growing number of college campuses close, so does the window for students—of all backgrounds and circumstances—to connect in person with the schools to which they have been admitted. While this has elicited a range of emotions, from disappointment to uncertainty to anxiety, all is not lost. With the right attitude and strategy, students can make an informed college choice. The following considerations with an easy to remember acronym (COVID 1-9) will help newly admitted students in their process of discernment:

C
reativity
If ever there was a time for schools and students to be nimble and innovative, this is it. Colleges and universities have had to find creative ways to respond to the unfolding crisis. Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign explains that recently, some universities have started to delay their deadlines for students to accept offers of admission, with some moving the deadline from May 1 to June 1. The group, Admission Counselors Cultivating Equity and Peace Today (ACCEPT), has begun to crowdsource a Google doc to track which schools are changing their deadlines. Borst says, “although not all universities may make similar announcements, families should likely anticipate more flexibility around dates and deadlines. The traditional admission calendar of students picking a college by May 1st may not be as firm as it has been in previous years.” He adds, even if a college is not flexible with its dates, students and families should still try to learn as much as possible about the colleges they are considering. Look online for new information. Call the admission office. Email and ask your direct questions, and expect clarity in the answers. Beyond the answers to these questions, another measure of institutional quality might be how a college or university can effectively respond in a time of crisis.” Ken Anselment, dean of admissions and financial aid at Lawrence University agrees, saying “students and families can learn a lot about an institution’s values by how it is accommodating students—their current students, and their potential future students—during these uncertain times.” Borst describes a tweet from a colleague that suggests, “in a crisis, the strengths of your organization shine, the weaknesses are multiplied by 100”. The same holds for a student and the strength of their creativity. This is not an ideal circumstance for choosing a college, but the resourceful individual will find an approach that works best for their specific interests and hopes. This is an opportunity to employ those research and critical thinking skills that you have been developing throughout high school. Dig deep into each college’s website. Find the school newspaper online and search the archives from the last year to get a better sense of what issues the campus is facing.

Safety and security is a concern for most students and their parents. The federal consumer protection Clery Act requires that each school report statistics on-campus crime and safety policies. You can search the Depart of Education’s database for the most recent three-year statistics to see an overview of the incidents of theft, sexual assault, harassment and more. Then if you need context for this information, ask at the college. Do you want to know more about the larger community around the college (hopefully the answer is yes)? Look up the website for the local town and/or Chamber of Commerce. Check Patch.com to see if there is a site for the area around the school where you can explore local news.

Be resourceful and think outside the box as you make the best of a challenging time. Consider how you might have normally made this choice or how you have made other large decisions in life and then brainstorm innovative solutions and approaches. 
 
Openness 
Being open is a two-way street on the road to picking a college. As Borst acknowledged, students should expect and seek transparency from the schools they are considering. As you interact with the admission office and campus community to make a decision, consider the information you want to access. What do you need to make your decision and how are you going to be best informed? What sources are the most dependable and revealing? Many students find it difficult to unpack what is accurate and to be trusted and what is misleading and overly subjective or unbalanced opinion. Ask tough questions and insist on straightforward answers. Go beyond the surface and explore the deeper implications and context for the information you are provided. For example, how might students understand a school’s dedication to racial equity? Dr. Ted Thornhill, is an associate professor of sociology and the sociology program coordinator in the Department of Social Sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University who studies race and racism. He advises,
“Students shouldn’t expect that all colleges and universities are equally committed to racial equity—they are not. The presence of an office of ‘diversity and inclusion,’ even if it is well-funded and adequately staffed, is an insufficient demonstration of a college’s commitment to racial equity. In the absence of a national database that allows one to search, sort, and evaluate colleges by their demonstrated commitment to racial equity, it is imperative that students, parents, and college counselors do their due diligence. This will take additional effort, as it requires one to look well beyond the racial composition of the student population.”
Thornhill shares some questions that antiracist students and their advocates should ask about any college or university they are considering:
“How racially diverse are the faculty, staff, and administration? How many racist incidents and race-based hate crimes have occurred on campus in recent years? How and when did the administration respond? Are all students required to take at least one course that substantively addresses race and racism? What are the experiences of current students of color on campus (not the handpicked ones leading campus tours and calling and emailing you directly)? Are faculty, staff, campus police, and administrators required to complete antiracism training? Do their job descriptions include clear language that the successful candidate will be an equity-minded/antiracist individual?”
While you demand openness from the colleges you are considering, you must remain open yourself. If you are seriously considering attending a college to which you have been accepted, then it has survived the initial cut. Now open your mind to look at each school through a fresh lens. Whitney Soule is the senior vice president and dean of admission and student aid at Bowdoin College. She explains that “every school that is canceling visit options is building out alternative approaches to introduce the unique qualities of their school that would have been conveyed during the visit. She adds, “students will be swamped by ‘Open this!’ or ‘Don’t forget to watch our...!’ kinds of messages and it will be easy for students to get overwhelmed and just tune out completely. Soule says, “I recommend that students follow as much as they can for the schools they are excited about. Colleges will want to have their messaging build on itself between the time students are admitted and the time they need to deposit, so the content and information that comes in pieces will add up to a comprehensive view of what a college has to say. It’s worth it to try and stay connected to their messages throughout to make sure you know what you need to know!” She acknowledges that “we know students are not wild about email, but it’s still efficient for colleges to use email addresses to reach students and parents, even if to direct them to other messaging platforms.” Her advice is simply “check your email. (And wash your hands, because, we should all just be doing that.)” So, stay open and open those emails!

Variety  
It is said that variety is the spice of life, and when one is trying to choose a college, spicy is good. Seek out multiple sources and voices as you look to gain a better understanding of the experience on each campus. Using social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn can be helpful, allowing you to connect with other newly admitted students and graduates from your high school who attend the colleges you are considering. Ask about academic life, social life, athletics, the arts, the food and other various areas that are important to you. Always consider the source and the subjective nature of the information you are gathering, and by all means, be mindful of your interactions online as you don’t want to risk your acceptance being rescinded because of inappropriate behavior as has happened in the past.

Lee Ann Backlund is the dean of admission and financial aid and vice president for enrollment planning at The University of the South. She says, “this spring is unlike any time in my 39 years in the field. Just like students who are disappointed about the curtailing or cancellation of campus visits and events, admission folks are disappointed, too. We love showing our campuses off and introducing you to current students, professors, and coaches.” Even so, she reassures students that “there are still multiple ways to interact with the colleges you are considering through phone calls, Skype, virtual visits, online webinars and a variety of other options.” Kelly Adams Fraser, the owner and an independent educational consultant at Green Apple College Guidance & Education, has started a crowdsourced list of virtual admission programs and webinars and individual schools are also pushing out their events directly to students. Backlund tells newly admitted students to “contact the admission or financial aid office to schedule a time to talk. Do you want to talk with a current student? We can make that happen. What about a professor? They would love to talk with you. And yes, our coaches will still be available to answer your questions. Take advantage of all the virtual visits that may be helpful, and know that a virtual visit can be easy to schedule and be a great way to help you decide where you will call home for the next four years.” While this virus causes a lot of uncertainty, Backlund wants prospective families to know that “there is a lot they can do to engage with a university online.”

Intention
What do you want out of your college education? What is the experience you hope to have? What is your goal? For some, it might be getting a college degree for the least amount of money. For others, their aspirations might be more specific, like earning a nursing license. Or maybe one is after a college experience that is broader and centered on student life and/or developing a network. There is no correct answer, but as you choose the right school for you, a clearer understanding of your objective will help guide you. What are your wants and needs? Hopefully, you identified these before you began your college search, but if not, take time to articulate for yourself what is negotiable and non-negotiable about what you are looking for in a school. You also might not have clarity on an objective which could be informative in itself and perhaps your college choice should be a school with a wider range of opportunities. 

Another way to frame this decision is to consider the question that Google’s chief education evangelist, Jaime Casap, encourages us all to ask: “what problem do you want to solve?” As you contemplate your response, think about what you need to learn to solve it. Knowing what you know now, which school will best help you seek solutions?

Maybe if your intentions—or the problem you want to solve—are more obscure at this moment, you should deposit at a school that seems the best match now and consider a gap year to work, volunteer, intern and/or explore the world around you and the range of possibilities. Often students who take advantage of this approach enter college with a better sense of what they hope to accomplish and better prepared to make the most out of the experience and investment. The uncertainty of the current moment could make this an ideal option for some.

Delight
If you are choosing between multiple acceptances, be grateful that you get to do this! Take delight in the opportunities you have and find ways to celebrate your hard work—and sometimes privilege—that has gotten you this far. Resist the feelings of anxiety and finality of choosing a school and keep things in perspective. If you need inspiration, read Ross Gay’s book of essays, The Book of Delights. Share the joy of having choices for higher education with those who have supported you and served as mentors along the way. Send them a note of thanks or do something kind for them. Engage the people who know you best in your decision if that will be helpful, or if not, explain to them why you must approach this independently. A close friend, singer/songwriter Mike Morris has found a great way to delight in life by asking himself and others, “what is great about today?” If you are feeling overwhelmed by choice, consider a similar strategy and simply ask what is great about each school. Meanwhile, Lawrence University’s Anselment, reminds us “because we are all living with uncertainty, now might be a good opportunity for all of us to embrace our empathy, and lean more into practicing care and compassion with each other.”

1 to 9
Do yourself (and society in general) a favor and ignore the flawed commercial rankings like US News & World Report. If you are not able to think for yourself, then perhaps you are not ready for college. Instead, develop your proprietary rating system. Colleges and university admission offices have spent the last few months rating your academic potential and personal qualities on their internal scale. Now it is your turn. Develop an approach to rating each school that you are considering based on categories that are important to you. Use a scale of 1 to 9 with 1 being “significantly lacking” and 9 as ”ideal” (for you). You might ask why not 1 to 10? Because it is important to remember that no one school is a perfect 10. If you can approach your college choice with the realization that there will be aspects that you might not like, but rather as a search for the school where you can have the best experience, then you will not be setting yourself up for inevitable disappointment. After your thorough research and networking, here are some potential categories to rate:
  • Affordability (financial aid, additional fees, student debt averages, repayment rates)
  • Outcomes (job placement, internships, graduate school acceptance, graduation rates)
  • Support (academic accommodations, tutoring, faculty advising, mental health counseling)
  • Engagement (research, school spirit, student activism, clubs and activities, academic societies)
  • Community Life (location, events, programming, safety, food, belonging )
  • Equity (diversity, inclusion, campus policies, level of discourse) 
  • Gut (a general rating of what your heart is telling you)
Create your unique categories and build a spreadsheet or list with the aspects of your college experience that are important to you. This will allow you to compare the strengths of each institution and make an informed and personal choice.  

It Works Out
Ultimately the decision you make will be the right one for you at this moment. We are living in uncertain times and if approached with perspective, the novel coronavirus is a lesson to us all that life is unpredictable and not always linear. Neither is education. Rick Clark, the director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech highlights this reality in his most recent admission blog: #ItWorksOut. Remember, there are no wrong decisions because with the appropriate attitude you will make it right.

Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
for The Washington Post
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