In Their Own Words: High School Seniors on COVID-19 and Their College Selection

Carnegie Higher Ed Mar 30, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

As part of the CollegeXpress survey sent to high school seniors  about COVID-19 and their college decision-making process, we included some qualitative questions that enabled them to tell us exactly what they’re thinking—in their own words.

The survey was comprised of 30 questions with nearly 5,000 high school student respondents. The result? An enormous amount of valuable data and insights to help us understand what they’re faced with, what their concerns are, and how they’re feeling the college selection and decision-making process is changing in light of COVID-19. Sign up to receive a copy of the full report today.

Some of the most compelling and telling data gathered from our survey came from the three open response questions. We received ~8,400 unfiltered, candid answers. The responding students had a lot to say—and they’re looking for answers to their own questions as well. Below, we share just what these students shared with us—and unpack what it means for us as higher education marketers. We’ve broken it down by question and the multiple themes of participants’ responses.

Question: What messages or assistance do you need from colleges or universities regarding the outbreak?

Answer Theme 1: Date changes

Students are concerned about changes, delays, and extensions in decision dates, start dates, visit dates, etc. Clear communication about revised policies on timelines is essential.

“Accepted student days were canceled. Campus tours were canceled. What happens if corona lasts til the end of fall. What do we do about starting college?”

“Considering that the outbreak has caused many students not to be able to visit the campuses of some of the schools they applied to, I think they should push back the decision date past May 1.”

“Extended deposit submissions deadlines and admission offers deadlines to enroll!!! I would like time to get to experience college campuses and amidst COVID-19, I am unable to do this as the majority of colleges I am interested are closed!”

Answer Theme 2: How cancelled classes and tests (SAT/ACT/IB/AP) will impact admissions and credit

Many students were scheduled to take standardized tests in the coming months; most of these have been canceled, and students are anxious to see how these will impact their admission to schools and the credits they receive.

“I live in Washington state where all public schools were shutdown. My grades were not left how I wanted them to be. Will colleges allow grace with that in mind?”

“I was registered to take the SAT and an AP test within the month of March, but they are both canceled through May. How will this affect my applications? Will, I still be able to claim AP credit in time for me to enroll for my classes? Will colleges take these factors into consideration when reviewing applications? Are colleges even looking at applications? or have they stopped due to the COVID? how does it affect my chances of being accepted?”

Answer Theme 3: Impact on finances and housing

Students are very concerned about affording college and all the ways this pandemic will change prices, financial aid, fees, and housing, dining, and other logistical needs.

“All savings for college is being used during self quarantines, financial aid during the first year would be really helpful”

“Financial aid is a significant factor for college decisions, and the outbreak is causing financial stress for families. Even though this is a long-term issue, maybe schools could demonstrate what they can do financially in this situation.”

Answer Theme 4: How colleges will provide access to information, virtual tours, orientation, or other means to help the decision-making process now that they cannot do in-person tours

“Better options for determining fit, possibly extending enrollment deadline”

“chances for admitted students to experience the college before orientation, admitted students day was cancelled but I am hoping for a similar experience in the summer possibly”

“How one is supposed to compensate for the inability to meet in-person in regards to college acceptance seminars and congregations?”

“I would like more information about virtual campus tours or online preview days to learn more about schools and what they have to offer.”

Answer Theme 5: Reassurance and guidance

Students want to know that things will be okay and that their future is not up in the air. They are looking for their prospective college/university to provide leadership, stability, and commitment.

“All students need reassurance and assistance. This does not happen every day and we need to know the appropriate steps we should take in regards to our future as college students.”

“Are admissions still going on? If the pandemic has not died by the time the fall semester begins, what actions are going to be taken place?”

“Assurance that we will receive the same education if we have to do online and assurance that I will not pay full price if I cant move on campus”

“To know that I will actually be attending and not feel confused for my future.”

Answer Theme 6: How they are mitigating the spread of the virus

Students are wondering what actions colleges are taking to mitigate the spread, how they plan to prevent future outbreaks, and how they are protecting and supporting current students.

“How they are responding to the threat right now. This will help me to determine what their future response may be if COVID-19 is still an issue when I attend in the fall.”

“I definitely need more answers as to what efforts they are supporting to ensure the health of the schools.”

“I need to know that they are thinking about it, and concerned for the welfare of their students when we attend university. I need to know if they have a plan to contain the spread, or if it will mean online schooling for classes when they start in the fall. Will they maintain a quarantine if it gets worse for students on campus? Or will they allow students to come home?”

What else can a college do to make you feel prepared for your experience if an orientation in-person is impossible?

Answer Theme 1: Video or virtual tour of the campus and of orientations

Students were interested in pre-recorded orientations, live streamed orientations, and more intimate orientations where they were able to ask questions and interact with the presenter.

“A college or university may make me feel more prepared if there were maybe Instagram live or live youtube tour where potential students can still ask questions.”

“A live video call from the people that would do the in person presentation. I expect them to show me everything they would normally show.”

“Virtual Chats or videos showing campus. Along with videos of students talking about stuff they normally would at orientation.”

Answer Theme 2: Specific/assigned contacts

Students are asking colleges to assign a specific contact at a school to interact with and ask questions about orientation, dorms, registration, etc.

“Assign us a person that we can have 1-on-1 conversations with.”

“Availability from the staff to answer questions. Also, to constantly make information regarding student expectations during the new experience.”

“Create a series of orientation videos, be open to a video chat for a small group, or a video session with a large group.”

“One-on-one video or phone meetings with advisor, contact with faculty, clear communication on what needs to be done and what to expect.”

Answer Theme 3: Expanded communication

Students are nervous and are unsure how to plan ahead. They are interested in receiving as much communication as possible through different mediums to feel prepared.

“Just send lots of orientation information and clearly provide a list of all needed materials/suggested materials. Providing a mentor would definitely be a great influence/compromise during these struggling times of COVID-19, especially if I directly had their number and/or could meet with them in person. I believe orientation is a lot more than just visiting buildings, it is building bonds with other students and learning the ropes of a common school day. Maybe if schools could provide contact information to other students with similar classes at orientation, friendship bonds could be established earlier, and then people would have others to associate with (even if only virtually) and even make study groups with, which is key.”

“Send me an email or a packet with full detail or as much information as possible that would have been presented at orientation.”

Answer Theme 4: Ability to connect with other new students and form friendships

Many students view orientation as a space to meet and form bonds with their potential peers and are eager to interact.

“Small group messaging system with people similar to us so that we can meet potential new friends and new roommates.”

“Some sort of online orientation as well as a way to meet other students.”

“Virtual orientation and connecting with other incoming college students via social media”

“Connecting with future classmates and “meeting” professors, as well as upperclassmen giving an orientation.”

Question: What can colleges do to make you comfortable with selecting a school without being able to visit?

Answer Theme 1: Virtual tour

Students overwhelmingly noted that virtual tours would make them feel more comfortable selecting a school, and many noted a need to find community and “fit” through these tours and interactions.

“Any form of online tour or something similar that highlights what the university has to offer compared to others would be important, so people can get at least some idea of what each university is like amid this pandemic.”

“Have easily accessible virtual tours and webinars.”

“I would like to be able to be in contact with the students attending the university and have them give me a tour through video chat and have them tell me their experiences living there.”

Answer Theme 2: Human interaction

Students express a strong desire to be able to communicate with affiliates of the institution – alumni, current students, admissions staff, professors.

“Allowing us to connect with current students and/or alumni would be beneficial so we know from people who actually live there what it’s like. There are only so many pictures and videos we can see, it would be nice to hear a student’s opinion and advice.”

“Along with providing virtual tours, I think they should also provide contact information for admissions counselors, alumni, and current students so that a potential student can get in touch with someone who is confident to speak on what their typical college experience was like.”

“Virtual tours and help kids get in contact with current students and alumni. It’s important for incoming students to understand the vibe of the school and talking to students can help them do that.”

“Give options such as virtual tours, or the opportunity to online chat with an alumni or limited in person interaction.”

Answer Theme 3: Financial incentives

Students are apprehensive to make a selection without physically seeing a campus, and the pandemic has put an immediate strain on both students and parents. Students are more worried than ever about affording school, and many expressed that now they think they may not even be able to attend at all due to costs.

“Give me a scholarship to entice me. Plus my parents lost jobs so not sure I can attend at all now!”

“give better financial aid offers, my college fund is mostly tied to the stock market and I’m pretty worried about my family’s ability to afford the cost of college without making sacrifices.”

Answer Theme 4: Concern about inability to convey “fit”, “community”, and “vibe” of the campus without physically being there

This is where personality expression is essential – schools with clear personalities will attract students and make them more comfortable in their decision making process than will schools who are bland.

“Again, I feel like there is nothing they can do because doing virtual tours and Skyping with current students is just not the same as seeing the campus in person, getting a vibe for the student life, and actually visualizing yourself there.”

“Make sure as much of their residential life and campus “vibe” is displayed online as possible.”

“I must visit to be comfortable.”

“I would not attend a college or university that I did not visit. Especially after Covid19, the community around the college campus is as important as the college itself.”

“I am not sure. It’s not the same seeing things virtually. When you visit in person you can actually feel the community and that plays a large role in the decision.”

What can we take away from the data?

Prospective students are reticent to make a decision about which school to attend without a proper assessment of fit. They spoke of the need for human connection—they want to be sure they have chosen a school that meets both their academic and social needs. Overwhelmingly, students expressed that they have a hard time assessing the feel and “vibe” of a campus and a community solely over the internet, and voiced a desire to speak with university affiliates to determine both academic and social fit. Video chats and live streams were oft requested, with special emphasis on these being interactive and intimate. Students want to see, be seen, and be heard—literally and figuratively. This is a critical opportunity for institutions to express their personality to students through their communications, and to find innovative, accessible, and practical ways to connect prospective students to their institution and to each other. 

Students are worried about the logistical impacts COVID-19 will have on their ability to attend and pay for school, and are looking to institutions for guidance and transparency. Many are concerned that they will be unfairly assessed due to their atypical senior year and want to know how schools plan to accommodate and address the extenuating circumstances that led to students’ academics, test scores (or lack thereof), and credits (from AP/IB courses) being incomplete. Notably, these students are not looking for handouts; they simply want these facts to be acknowledged and not held against them. Additionally, they are concerned that this will impact financial aid offers. Many students expressed fear that they would not be able to attend any school without aid due to the sudden loss of their own or their parents’ jobs.

Students are eager to hear how schools are handling this crisis. They requested frequent, detailed, and honest communications about every aspect of admissions and attendance, with particular emphasis on changes in timelines, due dates, and procedures. They want to know how each school is addressing COVID-19 on campus – how they are preventing the spread of the disease, how they are supporting their current students, and how they plan to address any future outbreaks; they want to know that they will be protected and cared for.

Stay tuned

Download a copy of our COVID-19 Prospective High School Seniors Survey Report.

We are also putting together a variety of content, reports, and workshops to help support our industry partners and do what we can to provide resources and information that will help during these times. For continued content on impacts, strategies, and perspectives surrounding higher ed and COVID-19, continue to check our blog and our most recent virtual workshop.

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