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College Admissions During the Coronavirus Pandemic: The Paradox of Grace in College Admissions

Katy Dunn and Jeff Knox have served hundreds of students as independent educational consultants in the Washington, DC area and thousands more in other capacities. Their combined experience in education includes high school administration, classroom teaching, college admissions, and college access.

In just the last three weeks, the two of us have interacted with nearly 50 college admissions deans and counselors, in addition to a few representatives from College Board and ACT leadership, to learn as much as possible about the Coronavirus pandemic’s certain impact on upcoming admissions cycle. From the safety of our living rooms, we’ve “traveled” across this great nation, from Berkeley to Memphis and from Northfield, MN, to Ithaca, NY. At every stop, admissions directors proffer responses to address countless new questions, and the through-line for all of them is the commitment to “grace” in college admissions.

Founded in spiritual principles, the concept of grace signifies a gift, something freely given without any strings attached. Such a gift in the opaque world of college admissions sounds like an extraordinary opportunity for college applicants, but demands, from those who plan to bestow it, a rigorous and thoughtful system, even more thoughtful than the one already in place. So we posit the hypothesis that college admissions and students will be faced with a new paradigm, one that creates a paradox, which we are calling The Paradox of Grace. Admissions officers say they can and will work with less information about an applicant, and yet, the current system is built around this very information.

In our endeavor to understand how admissions offices will view the traditional elements of a college application – grades (now from online coursework), standardized test scores, demonstrated interest, students’ personal narratives, and the like – it occurs to us that we may see a new paradox emerge in college admissions, or perhaps an exacerbation of the critical one that already exists, one that, for some highlights an opportunity for strategy, to others woeful inequality, and to the rest, a quagmire of both.

This thinking leads to this question: Will those applicants who are able to supply more data to admissions be better positioned, simply because there is more data to work with, despite the forgiving nature with which admissions offices intend to approach their decision-making?

Humans, Not Heartless Robots, Work in Admissions

“Will they understand?” Almost every student with whom we have Zoomed since mid-March has asked some form of this question. After that question come more questions.

What about my grades from online coursework?

How will grades earned from online instruction translate when an application is read? If your academic performance goes up, will colleges think it’s because online coursework is just plain easier? If it goes down, will they think the student treated shelter-in-place like a vacation?

In webinar after webinar, admissions directors have said that they will tease out trends and build an academic impression of each student from before (and perhaps after) this era of social distancing. According to Cornell University’s Vice Provost for Enrollment Management Jonathan Burdick during an April 6 webinar, the first five semesters of high school provide enough of what they need to do that. On its face, the message that colleges might look at transcripts through a more generous lens may provide relief. However, we know of many students who were counting on this semester to strengthen their transcript, so this message provides not relief but more anxiety. We can think of dozens of students for whom one critical semester helped them shift not only the letters on their transcripts but also their own sense of academic identity.

My standardized testing plan is now a mess. How is that fair?

Then, there’s also looming anxiety about the SAT and ACT. Will admissions officers see that cancelled test dates decreased chances for advantages such as re-takes, super-scoring, or throwing in a couple of Subject Tests? For students who planned out their testing calendar early enough to have already achieved the SAT or ACT they dreamed of, is that piece of their application less powerful now that the colleges of their choice have decided, at least for the next admission cycle, that they are going test-optional? Might colleges view AP exams, now truncated to 45-minute, three-question take-home tests, as easier and, therefore, not as important? What financial and educational impact could this change have on those who have been working hard to gain both college admission advantage and college academic credit from these exams?

Will colleges understand that the Coronavirus pandemic has impacted me differently from others?

Others wonder if it matters to college admissions that they have two parents who work in the health care system and risk their health and that of their family every day. Will admissions teams account for students who do not have access to the technology, time, or resources they need to access online AP exams or virtual learning? And perhaps most significantly is this issue: How will admissions officers account for the more than 16 million Americans who have filed for unemployment, some of them parents of prospective college students who now question whether college in the coming year is an option at all?

The answer to all of these questions is “Absolutely” because admissions officers are human. They understand these concerns, because they, too, are experiencing the same personal and professional upheaval that students and families all over the world are experiencing. Here is where the concept of grace – now more important than ever before – enters the admissions roundtable discussions.

An element of grace has always existed in college admissions. That’s why, for example, there is an “Additional Information” section on college applications, which gives students an opportunity to explain special circumstances. Grace is what elevates letters of recommendation as critical pieces of evidence for admissions to consider as they may build a case to admit a student whose academic profile might belie the significant value that student would add to their college community. More than once, we’ve heard admissions officers lament, “If only I had known,” when they hear, after the fact, the full details of a student’s story. Grace has always been the right approach to take while reviewing an application for college admissions.

But what happens when the entire world is going through something together, when the “Additional Information” sections of every applicant could refer to the same catastrophe that has left different yet, for all of us, indelible marks on our psyche and perhaps our security and health, when each and every student might require some grace?

The Paradox of Grace

And so, our main point: If colleges intend to gloss over grades from this period of time and comfortably accept students with a wider range of test scores, or temporarily eliminate the requirement of standardized testing entirely, will students who strive to provide additional data points – whether through privilege, ambition, or both – emerge as even shinier applicants than they would have presented before the onset of the pandemic? Does this message of grace from colleges, which so many students (and college counselors) interpret as a bye on second-semester grades and standardized testing, create an even more unbalanced system?

Those students whose schools are still using a letter-grade system rather than offering pass/fail (which doesn’t distinguish the difference between an A and a D) will simply have more information to send to colleges. Perhaps a “4” on an AP Environmental Science exam isn’t typically all that useful in determining an admission outcome for a prospective creative writing major, but now, when you compare that applicant to a similar one without that data point, does it make the former easier to admit only because there is a concrete piece of evidence to point to? When a college adjusts its admissions office’s testing policy to no longer recommend Subject Tests, maybe it’s possible that, amid the drove of students who readily eschew their would-be Math II and Literature Subject Tests, the relative few who do take them will stand out more, even if the results amount to a mediocre performance.

Less information produces a less comprehensive picture, which means that making relevant distinctions among applicants just got much harder. If there is validity to this new paradigm of information – i.e., we want to be forgiving of a sparse file but we somehow need to make our decisions – are the students who know how to latch onto opportunities better off in a new way? In doing so, do they provide the institutional gatekeepers something they can point to as they make admissions decisions they can live with?

I am more than grades and scores (but so is everybody).

With less clarity on how to compare students, is it easier for admissions officers to go with what would be a natural tendency: “more is better”? Perhaps but perhaps not. There’s another possibility. Part of the conundrum college admissions find themselves in could be addressed by shifting the emphasis to understanding the stories of each applicant. Of course, that takes a lot of work and admissions professionals are typically already over-extended. Perhaps college admissions will weigh more heavily application pieces such as student essays, letters of recommendation, and Zoom interviews. For many colleges, the student’s personal narrative has always been a fundamental part of making admissions decisions. Some admissions offices have even created a way to metrically evaluate students’ personal qualities. This semester’s transcript may very well provide less reliable academic information, but that may make parts like a teacher’s insights in a recommendation all the more valuable.

In addition, perhaps some student extra-curricular activities, another element of a student’s subjective narrative, are better suited for social distancing than others. The editor of the student newspaper, for instance, might have a much easier time transitioning its publication to an online platform and continuing business as usual than the captain of the lacrosse team would have showcasing leadership “on and off the field.” This question itself implies that a student has access to technology, space, quiet, and resources to enact a creative way to continue to follow their passion.

This part of the process can feel unreliable, arbitrary, and unfair, even more so now. It seems open to interpretation because, well, it is. With so many stories and so many applicants who are likely to, in one way or another, refer to the pandemic, will this factor be enough to make a difference?

Gaming Demonstrated Interest

Then there is this to consider: Does any of this solve the enrollment managers’ most pressing concern – filling a class? Predicting yield (i.e., calculating the number and demographics of those who will enroll) is key for every admissions office at every college across the land. Colleges have tools that help them predict yield by tracking demonstrated interest, an admissions term that literally means “likelihood to enroll.” Put into context, it means that admissions officers are trying to predict the behavior of 17- and 18-year-olds, which, according to anyone who has ever interacted with one, is very, very hard to do. Still, they try, and they can spend a lot of money finding sophisticated ways to do it.

One of the most tried and true data points in tracking demonstrated interest is documenting campus visits, which are unavailable for the time being. Tracking campus visits was never all that fair in the first place. For some, grabbing a flight and hotel room to spend a few hours on a college campus is just out of the question. So colleges have worked hard to provide new social media profiles, virtual information sessions and tours, videos of students on campus, student panel webinars, and more. Giselle Martin, Director of Recruitment and Talent at Emory University, recently told a wide webinar audience that she thinks this is one of the best times to research colleges and universities, given the vast number of new offerings. “Use this time as your playground,” she recommended, offering an optimistic and positive reminder to students that all is not lost.

Compared to arranging travel, accommodations, and schedules to make a physical campus visit happen, virtual options comprise a relatively low lift for the savvy student who wants to give the impression that a college sits at the top of their list. Expecting reliable internet access and consistent college counseling, however, isn’t a real solution for those without it.

More to our point though is this: If it has all moved online, isn’t it easier now than ever before for well-informed students with access to their own personal computer to game the demonstrated interest angle and hoodwink college admissions officers into thinking they are that student’s top choice? We think so.

We don’t have a solution. Or do we?

College admissions is not the only system that will have to discover a new normal in the likely long wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. The paradox of grace along with all the other confounding variables that plague college admissions are here to stay – unless, we argue, we all put into action deep systemic transformations that result in long-lasting sea changes. Even before the first human was infected with the virus, there were a number of creative, smart leaders who conjured up new approaches and floated inventive ideas in a world that, for the most part, always insists there is a reason, often several good reasons, why things can’t change.

A couple of colleges have tested transcript-optional admissions. In recent years, there has been a growing number of test-optional schools, but the acceleration of test-optional schools (in response to the pandemic) is breath-taking. Then, there’s the “lottery” proposal of course. There are calls every year to support students by mandating professional training for anyone who wants to call themselves a college counselor. Is perhaps now the right time to collectively close our eyes and jump into some of these ideas or something different and even more far-reaching?

Pain is the touchstone of growth, and everyone is in pain right now. So let’s grow. Why try to desperately cling to our old ways when we have the reason and opportunity – and certainly the excuse – to build new and better ones? Is a pandemic what it will take for us to finally decide to reinvent the way things are done in college admissions?

We are not arguing against grace. Grace is good. But we wonder how college admissions offices plan to systematically move through the next season with so many unknowns without fundamental transformation. We also wonder whether colleges admissions leadership sees the paradox we describe. We invite those on the front lines – admissions directors, vice provosts of enrollment management, College Board and ACT leadership, school-based college counselors, FairTest representatives, and anyone else – to help us unpack our thinking. What moves will we make to simultaneously honor universities’ mission to enroll a promising class and our students’ mission to find the right college?

A big part of the anxiety of this time is that none of us knows what the future will bring; every week brings new ideas, new fears, and new what-ifs that will continue to shape a rapidly changing landscape. The best we can do is stay connected, keep each other informed, and work together.

You can reach Katy Dunn and [email protected] and Jeff Knox at [email protected].

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