Answering Your Questions About College Admissions

As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic and the issues that have arisen around it. Every morning at 9:20 a.m. Monday-Friday we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment with a focus on a different aspect of this situation each day.

Today we’re looking at college admissions and what’s going to happen with higher education in the next school year and beyond with Irena Smith, a college admissions consultant based in Palo Alto. 

Let me start by asking you, on a scale of 0-10 what is the stress level among the families you've been working with this year?

So I would say probably a solid 9.5. There are a couple of students who are uncommonly zen about the whole thing and I think have an attitude towards it that we could maybe draw some inspiration from in terms of just working with what they have.

But I think in terms of everybody else, which is completely normal, taking a stressful process with an uncertain outcome under the best of circumstances and putting it in a pandemic is a recipe for a lot of stress.

And let's talk about what we do know and don't know, before we start getting to the questions. Can you give us a general sense from all the schools you've been aware of and working with, of what the plan is for the fall term?

So I think that because this is such a quickly unfolding and evolving situation, the plan is essentially that there is no plan. I hate to say that exactly, but I think most colleges are saying that they don't know exactly what's going to happen, they don't know if they're going to be able to have their students back on campus. Certain schools like Santa Clara University are saying that they will have their students back on campus, but at this point we really don't know. And we don't know what we don't know. So I think colleges are making all kinds of plans in the event that the case count really does go down or stabilize, in which case they can have students back. But they will need to have room for quarantined students and contingency plans for an outbreak on campus. Some colleges are considering hybrids, so some in-person and some remote instruction. And so I think we just really won't know until probably June or July what's actually going to happen.

And of course the housing situation is another source of stress for students and their parents. And about all we've heard, for example UC has hinted that maybe only one-third to one-half of all dorm rooms will be available.

Exactly. And so I think students who already have leases in private apartments don't know what to do, students who are no longer guaranteed housing don't know what to do. I think that we're going to be seeing - and I don't have a crystal ball obviously - but my very strong sense is we're going to be seeing students staying closer to home just because it's a lot easier to attend school if you already have a room and a desk and a place to sleep, versus not knowing where you're going to be living on campus. And I think that the past eight or so weeks have all given us probably a sense of paranoia, of being in close contact with people who have not been thoroughly vetted by whatever means. But I think that there's going to be a big shift towards students staying closer to home and doing classes remotely, if that's a possibility.

Ok, let's get to these questions and they've come in via email to askus@kcbsradio.com.

My son will be returning back to his apartment when shelter-in-place ends this fall for on-campus classes at colleges which he shares with three others. It is located off-campus. Will there be a required or recommended quarantine period since they have not been together for quite some time? Do you project there to be a particular protocol to follow?

So I suspect that's probably a better question for the health authorities. And I'm guessing the landlords, particularly those that rent a lot to students in high volume areas are going to be subject to pretty stringent regulations from the health department. But that falls outside my purview of what I know.

My daughter is planning to live in an apartment with two roommates at her college campus this fall or whenever the shelter-in-place order allows for in-person classes. She has already signed a contract in this agreement. Will the college apartment situation with social distancing become a problem or will students be assigned private apartments? Should we prepare for a price difference depending on the type of setting mandated for social distancing? 

That is another good question that I cannot answer just because I don't know the rent and health requirements. But my guess is based on everything I've seen is that landlords as well as colleges (and college-owned housing) are going to try to be flexible to accommodate students and obviously not put them at risk. But as far as a definitive answer, I don't unfortunately know.

Another still to be determined. 

How will school districts' decisions to convert spring grading to Pass/No Pass impact high school students who are college-bound? Do you have any idea of how this will really work for class rank, admissions, etc.?

So that one I can speak to a little bit better than apartment questions. I think that this is another thing that nobody knows because we have never seen - and it's not just San Francisco Unified by the way, it's a lot of other school districts in the South Bay and across the country that have gone Pass/No Pass. Universities are saying universally that they are not going to penalize students for Pass/No Pass grades. I have a very strong suspicion that there's going to be a big asterisk next to everything that happened in spring of 2020, academically. And students will be read, I think more than ever, in context in terms of not just these Pass/No Pass grades - which I think everybody is focusing on obviously - but also what they were doing before then: how they were engaging with other things that are not academic, what their extracurricular activities looked like, what they found to do for themselves in the aftermath of COVID, what their teacher letters of recommendation say for colleges that request teacher letters of recommendation.

So I think the small silver lining of Pass/No Pass is that it actually gives students a chance to really focus on learning rather than on the grades. And hopefully it will take a little bit of pressure off of juniors and at the same time, knowing that colleges are not going to penalize them for the Pass/No Pass grades should be a little bit of a help.

This next one kind of flips that coin and talks about students who may have been struggling and are late bloomers. What does a semester of this do to their GPA and class rank, and for those how will they handle grade recovery with a Pass/No Pass grade? 

For those students that does not help. They still have the first semester of senior year to show increasing strength in their grades. Those students might benefit - if they're focused on grade recovery and if that's something they're interested in - they might benefit from taking online courses at a local community college or various online high schools that make high school courses available for a grade, just to show that they are continuing to be academically engaged and interested. So there are ways to do that, it's just not ideal.

And parenthetically, do the colleges spot this in would-be students and prospective students? That they have tried to make up for bad freshman or sophomore year?

Absolutely. So colleges look at the transcript holistically, meaning that they will look for trends. So if somebody had a miserable freshman or sophomore year and then really improved their junior year and then had that sort of blank spot in terms of Pass/No Pass grades and then has extra courses that they've taken or has straight A's their first semester of senior year, that tells a very different story than somebody whose grades did the opposite.

What will happen regarding the SAT/ACT tests? 

Oh that's an excellent question. So the SAT canceled their June SAT test and is now looking to start offering the test, if safe, beginning in August and then going on every single month. And they've actually been calling on partner colleges and high schools to offer more testing space so that every student can take a test if he or she wants to. The ACT has said that they are offering the make-up ACT - from the April one that was canceled - in June, but honestly I'm a little bit skeptical if that's actually going to take place because June 13th does not seem far enough out to be able to put a bunch of people in the same room to take a standardized test.

How relevant are these tests anyway? The canceled SAT could shed light on the real need for SATs. 

Exactly. So I actually have thought that once they started canceling the SATs in March and the ACT in April. I think that we won't know until colleges admit the first class of students with test-optional results. There has been a small but significant movement to make standardized tests optional in college admissions. There's an organization called FairTest.org which lists colleges that have gone test-optional even before this.

This forced a large test-optional situation - the COVID-19 pandemic - and so we are going to have to see what colleges think of this new class that they admitted, because now there will be hundreds of additional colleges. And if they don't find that they miss tests in the equation, it may be a death blow to the standardized testing industry.

Our daughter has been accepted to UC Santa Barbara, but with all the uncertainty about the fall term, we're not sure it's the right time for her to start there. If we ask for a deferral, will she lose her spot for next year?

That is a good question. The UCs traditionally do not accept deferrals and requests for gap years. So you either take your spot when you've been accepted or you lose your spot. They have indicated on their website that they're going to be flexible as far as considering student  requests, so there may be a little window opening for students to take time off. It may also make their life easier in terms of figuring out how to accommodate students in a post-pandemic landscape. So I think it will depend on individual campuses and what they have to say about student requests, but it may be possible to defer.

Does it seem to you - and this is my question here - we're going to see a smaller freshman class nationwide in the fall because of all these concerns?

So I suspect it may be a smaller freshman class. I suspect we may also be seeing a lot of transfer students a year or two years from now, because seniors this year - in addition to losing prom, losing graduation, losing all the pageantry of being graduating seniors - have been probably the first class in history to pick their college virtually rather than being able to attend Admitted Students events. And I don't think that's necessarily going to make everybody realize they're at the wrong school, but I do think we're going to be seeing more transfers a year or two from now just because not being able to see a school in person, not being able to have orientation in person very likely is going to be hard.

It seems wrong to us that colleges seem to be saying, "full tuition still applies even if all your classes are online." What are you hearing about this issue?

So I've heard a lot of contention about this issue. I think most colleges that are not able to accommodate students living on campus are refunding all the residential expenses back to families. The UC website says that full tuition and fees still apply whether classes are remote or in-person. It makes sense from a certain standpoint; they still have to pay professors to lecture, there are certain fees administratively otherwise that still have to be in place. I personally don't see why it's not possible to give students at least a small symbolic break on tuition because colleges are not paying for building maintenance, they're not paying for other expenses that are associated with running a college live so I can absolutely see the resentment of paying full college tuition if you're taking classes from your computer at home.

Our son is finishing his freshman year at San Jose State. We hear a lot about "gap years" for kids just coming out of high school, but what do you think about a year off for somebody who's already in college? Do the schools have rules for something like that?

So typically the schools do have rules. We're in a landscape where rules are being bent all the time, or broken. So I think it will depend again individually on the college and on what the questioners' son wants to do with that gap year. If it's a year to study abroad, if it's a year to work, if it's a year to do research I would imagine the university would be pretty accommodating but they would have to approach the university to find out what the answer to that is.

My daughter was planning a transfer to UC Davis from a private four-year college as a sophomore. She is finding that doing distance learning for this semester is extremely exhausting being on the computer all the time, Zoom several times a day, etc. This is not the experience we want to pay full price for in the fall. UC Davis says she cannot take any community college classes if she accepts and takes a deferment of enrollment. What are the chances she will get a job, if she takes a deferment? (not good). What options does she have that we aren’t seeing here? 

So I think that we're all sort of in a difficult situation in terms of, if online learning is all that's available, it's a reality that students are going to have to get used to.

One way to solve that may be to take fewer classes. So whatever the minimum is that she can take to be a fully enrolled student, so maybe three classes instead of four, which would obviously take her longer to finish but she's not going to be in front of the computer for eight hours a day or however many hours a day with classes. But I think otherwise, it's either stay there and do it or figure out something else to do. And the job market is obviously pretty abysmal unless you are interested in food delivery, which seems to be thriving, or warehouse stores. So I would say unfortunately it's not the best option but that may be her only option if she wants to stay at Davis.

And you began to touch on this earlier, but here's a direct question: what is the impact to current high school juniors?

So to current high school juniors, I think the impact still remains to be determined. It's obviously huge, many of them have gone to Pass/No Pass, many of them have had their testing delayed. But I think in some ways it's an opportunity to really do what the college admissions process forces them or asks them to do anyway, which is to take some time to consider who they are, what their strengths are and what they want to do with their time proceeding application to college.

So there's still things that they can do. They may not look the same as what they did before, especially for athletes who are no longer able to practice with their teams and go to competitions. But I think students who love to draw, students who love to code, students who like to invent things, students who are interested in cooking or learning a foreign language can still do these things. It looks different in this day and age than it did before, but it's an opportunity to still dig into: what are the things that are meaningful, that touch other people in a positive way that you can do both for yourself and obviously concurrently to help your college application? And I think rather than focusing on what they can't do and what they no longer have, it might be helpful to look at what they can do and what new opportunities there might be.

With canceled SATs and the uncertainty of college visits, what advice do you have for families entering into the selection and admittance process? 

So I think probably the most useful thing they can do is become familiarized with the resources that are out there. The Common Application, which is actually the biggest platform for undergraduate applications, has a really good resource list on their website that compiles updates from the SAT, ACT, colleges and their policies as far as virtual visits, deadlines that are being extended or not extended for matriculating freshmen for this year. So I think being aware of what colleges are doing could be really helpful. Visiting the college website and looking at what their COVID updates say is helpful. Getting on the colleges mailing lists so that they can be aware of: are there virtual tours, are there ways that they can get in contact with an admissions officer to ask their questions.

What I have seen over the past couple of weeks is sort of an unprecedented willingness of college admissions officers, including directors, to make themselves available to the public in a way that they were not before this pandemic. And I think that's a positive way for students to get to know the actual people who will be reading their applications. So I think probably the best piece of advice that I have for them is, don't be afraid to reach out and ask questions. Nobody exactly knows what's happening but at least they will feel less alone to know that, "hmm, even the admissions officers at the University of Chicago don't know what's happening but they gave me some actionable advice."

That's good advice in general, I think, about everything we're going through. 

Ok, last question here. For state university students who are getting Cal Grants or state university grants, what chance is there that the state's pandemic-driven $50 billion dollar budget shortfall will put those grants at risk in the future?

That is an excellent question and probably a good one for the financial aid office at the universities. But what I have seen on the colleges' websites is that there's an articulated willingness to work with students who have been impacted by COVID-19 financially. So I'm not sure how much money is going to be taken out of higher education; I would imagine a fair amount. But I also think that the state schools have traditionally been willing to work with students who are qualified and can't afford to get an education. So it's very possible that it will be affected, but at least right now what colleges are saying is, "come to us with whatever need you have and we'll try to work with you.