Getting into college is not what Avonworth High School senior Liana Simmons is worried about. With five college acceptance letters in hand so far, she's facing the daunting prospect of choosing a campus to live, study and grow for four years without ever having physically been there.
“Unfortunately, the thing that I need is to be on campus because I’m not confident in myself that I’m going to make a decision or a confident decision of where I want to be if I have not yet stepped on that campus,” said Simmons, 17.
Simmons is one of many students who hasn’t been able to visit college campuses due to restrictive rules barring formal visits and tours caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The deadly virus reduced national college enrollment, particularly for students of color. The percentage of high school graduates who went to college immediately after high school fell by more than a fifth last fall. Colleges and universities have made attempts to adapt recruiting efforts to avoid a similar or more severe drop from this batch of high school seniors, but it is unclear how students will respond, even amid vaccine distribution.
To help students transition, school counselors are advising students interested in post-secondary education to sign up for virtual events, talk to current students and connect with admissions counselors.
But top of mind is stepping on campus and actually visiting the school, said Nicole Levis, a school counselor at Avonworth.
“My campus visit many years ago solidified my choice — it just felt right,” Levis said about Westminster College, her undergraduate alma mater. “This is gonna sound odd, but it was just a feeling, a gut instinct that I had that the school I chose was where I belonged. And you're not going to get that feeling by looking at videos on a website.”
High school seniors are about to hit a full year of online or hybrid learning since schools first shut down last March. Schools had to quickly pivot to continue providing virtual education. And colleges and universities had to shift to attracting students online.
Brian Dwyer, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Chatham University, said he works with prospective students to see if Chatham is the “right fit.”
“I think one of the biggest goals that I try to focus on with students — and I've really been focusing on this given everything with the pandemic — is ‘let's just take a step back and talk about you’...and then how can I discuss why our institution is a good fit,’” Dwyer said.
Like other schools, Chatham hosted virtual events, and Dwyer said such opportunities have expanded the geographic boundary for students in different places and time zones to participate.
Online tours and seminars come with their own set of challenges, especially because students spend so much time online for high school.
Ebennie Davis, an 18-year-old senior at City Charter High School, said she wants to connect with current students and professors at the University of Pittsburgh but is already exhausted by the end of a school day.
“I've been slacking on it to be honest because having everything virtual...after the day, you just kind of shut your computer down and take a nap,” Davis said.
Levis said many of her students at Avonworth are not as excited to log back on to another virtual call or event after spending the majority of the day online.
“They're on some sort of device, eight to nine hours a day, because they have to be, not because they want to be. So the last thing they want to do is sit at their computer and watch a tour online,” Levis said.
Simmons said virtual tours could make everything look nice and polished, but she would like to know more about a campus and the surrounding area.
According to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, far fewer high school graduates went to college immediately after high school in the fall — a decline of 21.7% compared to 2019 graduates.
In particular, there was a drop in college enrollment for low-income students and those from high schools with large Black or Hispanic populations, the report said.
Homewood Children’s Village, a youth educational enrichment organization in Pittsburgh, aims to offer students and families resources to succeed in school and in post-secondary opportunities.
Flolena Stitt, the organization’s post-secondary student support manager, works directly with high school students to create plans for after graduation. She’s seen that some students have trouble staying engaged online. She said one of her students became disinterested in online education. To help him feel more connected to learning, she remembered his interest in stocks and business and recommended he join the entrepreneurship club at Westinghouse Academy.
Stitt pivoted her goal-setting lessons online so her students could continue to develop their “post-secondary plans.”
In her online classroom, Stitt created lessons for students to develop goals that align with their interests in ways that are specific and measurable, she said. For example, one of her students initially said he would attend his online classes, but Stitt encouraged him to be more specific to help sharpen the goal — showing up for class every day until he graduates this spring.
Despite some challenges, the incoming class of college freshmen might have some advantages. Lisa Simmons noted that her daughter may adjust a little faster to college than her older son because remote learning has given Liana a chance to “navigate and manage her time.”
For Davis, learning online at City Charter had an unexpected benefit.
“I honestly feel like having [learning] online helps me be more focused. I think that's just me because I'm really good at kind of like working individually and being online,” she said.
The pandemic has not disrupted everything: Acceptance letters are still just as exciting.
“It was like an amazing feeling because honestly like before all this happened, I was kind of nervous,” said Davis, who is planning on majoring in computer science information systems at the University of Pittsburgh.
The Simmons household is trying to plan out how they will visit college campuses now that acceptance letters have started coming in from schools like Kent State University, the University of Buffalo and Penn State University.
Simmons, who is interested in majoring in digital media productions and film, said getting her first letter solidified the fact that she was going to be able to attend college.
Her mother said it is important to help her daughter navigate her feelings and concerns about senior year and college obstacles. In fact, the family has adapted the motto: adapt, adjust and overcome.
“I think my college experience will be fine because it'll be something new and unique,” she said. “And I guess I won't have anything to compare it to.”
Naomi Harris covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Megan Gent.