College Signing Day and the Coronavirus: Improving College Admissions During the Pandemic

Students walk on a university campus in Los Angeles following the announcement that many Southern California universities would suspend in-person classes due to COVID-19 concerns, March 11, 2020.

May 1 is a day that looms large in the lives of high school seniors who are on a traditional college path: It is the deadline for many of these students to make final college decisions. Typically, this is a time to celebrate, don college sweatshirts, and pick roommates; yet never in the modern era of competitive college admissions has the month been clouded by such uncertainty. In the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, families have lost employment. Meanwhile, no one knows what the fall semester will look like, and standardized tests remain up in the air.

Many colleges and universities have taken positive steps to support students at this time by extending deposit deadlines, waiving enrollment fees, or suspending requirements to submit standardized test scores such as the SAT and ACT. In order to highlight practices that other institutions may want to adopt, this column shares examples of the flexibility and creativity that colleges are displaying.

There is the potential for some long-term good to come out of this crisis in terms of improving equity in college admissions. For many years, standardized tests, merit aid, and a number of other admissions and enrollment practices have put low-income students, students of color, and nontraditional students at a disadvantage. Colleges should therefore consider making some of these policies permanent and finding other ways to level the playing field to allow more students the chance to attend selective and well-resourced colleges.

Extending enrollment and deposit deadlines

When thinking about college affordability, students and their families often look at tuition and student services fees. Yet for many low-income students, the commitments that must be made before they step foot on campus can serve as the first barrier to their dream school. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, students and families are facing greater financial uncertainty than ever. In response, an increasing number of colleges are giving students and their families more time to decide what institution will best fit their situation amid the pandemic.

More than 400 institutions without rolling admissions have extended their enrollment and deposit deadline to June 1, 2020, or later. The list of places includes big names such as schools within the California State University system and George Mason University—these deadlines are not a concern for most community colleges and other open-access institutions that have rolling admissions. As one college official told The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Underrepresented students, especially first-generation families, aren’t necessarily savvy enough to know that they could ask for an extension, just as they don’t necessarily know that they can ask for financial-aid appeals. It seemed more equitable to just move it back for everyone.”

Waiving deposit fees

With many families facing financial stress, some colleges are realizing that it is not enough to simply extend enrollment and deposit deadlines; these institutions are also moving to waive these fees altogether in order to relieve financial stress for students and their families. Normally, colleges would require a nonrefundable enrollment deposit to hold a spot in their incoming freshmen class. These fees typically range from $50 to $500 dollars and must be paid by the May 1 deadline. However, for low-income students with limited financial resources, such costs can serve as powerful barriers to enrollment.

During the coronavirus crisis, a number of institutions have taken proactive steps to make this process more affordable. For example, the University of Nevada, Reno—a public university in Nevada that usually charges a refundable $250 fee—as well as the University of South Florida, which usually charges a nonrefundable $200 fee, have both announced that they will be waiving deposit fees for students who have had changes in their finances due to COVID-19. By doing so, they are providing relief for incoming students who may not have money to spare. Other institutions, such as Villa Maria College and Bloomfield College—private colleges in New York and New Jersey, respectively—have decided to lift the deposit requirement entirely for admitted incoming students.

Going test-optional

In response to the coronavirus pandemic and cancelation of testing dates, many colleges and universities are going “test-optional,” in that they are not requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. In recent weeks, more than two dozen colleges—including the University of California—have dropped their SAT and ACT requirements. While in many cases, this is just for one or two admissions cycles, the University of Oregon and Oregon State University announced that they are dropping their testing requirements permanently. While test-optional policies have been gaining popularity among colleges for a number of years, the pandemic has drawn attention to this approach as a means of alleviating the pressures that students face during times of crisis.

There is not yet a great deal of evidence on how test-optional policies affect equity, but there are reasons to believe that downplaying or eliminating standardized test results could improve opportunities for low-income students and students of color, as these students often do not have the same access to academic resources as their affluent and white counterparts—for instance, well-resourced K-12 schools, test-prep classes, and tutoring. This gap is reflected in scores broken down by income and race. A 2018 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling examining colleges that went test-optional found that many of these institutions enrolled more underrepresented minority students. It also found that for students who did not submit their scores when they applied, high school grades were a better predictor of their success in college than their scores would have been had they submitted them.

Conclusion

Not every college will react to the coronavirus threat in a way that improves equity: College leaders are facing enormous financial pressure, and some institutions are more aggressively enticing students to put down their deposits—at the expense of many low-income students and students of color. But the coronavirus crisis also presents an opportunity for leadership. If colleges realize that they can get by without collecting enrollment fees or requiring standardized test scores, they should consider maintaining those practices in a post-pandemic world, while also looking for additional ways to ensure that educational opportunities and social mobility are available to students of all backgrounds.

Marissa Navarro is a special assistant for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress. Taseen Shamim is an intern for Postsecondary Education at the Center.

To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.