Survey: What 5,000 High School Seniors Said About COVID-19’s Impact on Their College Search

Carnegie Higher Ed Mar 24, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

Prospective first-year college students are anxious about what COVID-19 means for their college decision process and the potential impact the pandemic will have on their ability to afford college. They’re also nervous about whether or not they’ll be able to attend in-person orientation sessions this summer or classes on campus in the fall. 

Carnegie Dartlet surveyed 4,848 high school seniors through the CollegeXpress student database, asking a wide-ranging set of questions about how current events are impacting their college search. We are in the process of analyzing all the quantitative and qualitative responses and will be releasing a full report in the near future, but we wanted to share some initial data to quickly inform college admissions and marketing leaders working to serve these students through the final stages of their college search process.

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Two-thirds of students say a May 1 deadline is unrealistic

The college admissions world seems to be torn about whether or not colleges and universities should extend the traditional May 1 deposit deadline, but 67% of students surveyed say they want an extension, at least until June 1, and those numbers jump to 74-80% when looking specifically at students from underrepresented minority populations and students with higher financial need. The table below shows the splits on this data, which will be important to consider.

Question: Many colleges require commitments to attend as early as May 1. In light of COVID-19, what date do you think is the earliest realistic date for committing to your school choice?


Students will choose a school without visiting, but you better have a good virtual option

More than half of students surveyed said they still hoped to make campus visits this spring, either for the first time or visiting their top-choice schools again. But in the midst of COVID-19, students didn’t indicate a significant change in the likelihood that they would choose a school they had never visited. In fact, 46% of respondents said they were “somewhat likely to,” “highly likely to,” or “absolutely would” choose a school they had never physically visited.

That’s somewhat surprising, until you examine the qualitative answers to the question, “What can colleges and universities do to make you comfortable with selecting a school without being able to visit?” In high repetition, students communicated a desire for virtual tours of campus and residence halls, along with live, interactive Q&A sessions with current students and staff. 

This isn’t to say students prefer a virtual visit over an actual campus visit, but they are very comfortable with the virtual format and, until the COVID-19 issues are resolved, will be attracted to schools that provide compelling, user-friendly experiences online.           

Confidence in the ability to afford college is down

We all know college affordability is a big issue, and survey respondents indicated a significant negative change in their confidence level when asked about the impact COVID-19 will have on their ability to afford college. Only 23% of the sample said they currently have a high level of confidence in their ability to afford college now, while 32% said they had a high level before the pandemic took hold. Meanwhile, 17% of students are not at all confident they can afford college now, up from 11% pre-COVID-19. And that number increases in low-socioeconomic and underrepresented minority populations.

Read our recent blog post that explores what we can learn about the financial repercussions of COVID-19 by looking back at the 2008 financial crisis. 

How, with whom, and how often students want to connect

High school students typically tell us they receive too many emails from colleges and universities, and we all know they do. But for this population of high school seniors, weighing their college decisions in a world filled with uncertainty, they indicated a significant increase in desire for email from institutions they’re still considering. We asked students how they wanted to connect with schools and to indicate from a set of choices as many answers as were appropriate for them. Here’s how they responded:

  • 89% by email
  • 62% by text
  • 33% by social media
  • 33% by virtual tours
  • 30% by phone

We also asked with whom students wanted to connect, again giving them several options to select any and all that applied. Here’s what they said:

  • 80% admissions counselors
  • 50% administration (deans, presidents, etc.)
  • 46% current students
  • 42% faculty
  • 30% residential advisors

Finally, we asked students how often they want to hear from colleges and universities in the coming months, and here’s what they told us:

  • 7% daily
  • 26% a few times per week
  • 34% once a week
  • 16% every other week
  • 9% monthly
  • 8% only when asked

This is a deviation from what we normally see when asking students about frequency of communication from colleges and universities. Typically, it is a 50/50 split between the top three and bottom three selections, yet we saw 67% of respondents in the three highest frequency choices.

What does it all mean?

The data outlined here is only a fraction of what we gathered, but it addresses several pressing questions we are getting from colleges and universities right now. Students are uneasy, they have indicated to us that they need to hear from you about what’s next, and they need to be able to connect with you and your campuses virtually. 

None of us have a script for thiswe’re writing the script in real time. COVID-19, in the near term, is going to require rapid development and enhancement of virtual campus visit options and, in the long term, likely will cause us to rethink the campus visit experience entirely. You’re going to have to redesign your admitted student communications flow starting now to serve students through this tumultuous time and continue to keep them connected with your school. You’re going to have to revisit your financial aid packaging to meet increased levels of need, which won’t be reflected in current FAFSAs. Of course, the model you create will have to work for the students and for the sustainability of the institution. 

And, yes, you’re going to have to be flexible on allowing students time to make their decisions. There is too much uncertainty right now to expect them to commit to a school by May 1, and if your school truly is committed to serving underrepresented populations, it’s hard to look at this data and feel good about enforcing that deadline. 

Having worked with so many college admissions professionals across the country, I know you all are in this for the right reasons. You’re working tirelessly to serve students as best you can, always prioritizing their best interests. That has never been more difficultor more importantthan it is right now. 

As always, we’re here to help.  

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