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How the pandemic is shaking up college admissions and testing

With many college admissions testing sites closing down during the pandemic, as many as 50 percent of early applications arrived without any test scores this year. That's resulted in some top-ranked schools seeing a surge in applications, but elsewhere, application numbers are flat or even down. William Brangham spoke with Jeffrey Selingo, author of "Who Gets In and Why," to learn more.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The pandemic has disrupted education at every level this year, including the world of higher education. It's leading to changes in the way colleges and universities operate.

    We're beginning a special series that will explore the impact on what schools are teaching, their costs and finances, how they deal with mental health concerns and the impact on students of color.

    Tonight, William Brangham begins our Rethinking College series, focusing on how the pandemic is already changing the landscape of admissions.

  • William Brangham:

    Amna, ahead of the January 1 deadline for applications, schools and universities report mixed results. With many of the college admissions testing sites closed down during the pandemic, as many as 50 percent of early applications arrived without any test scores this year.

    That's resulted in some top-ranked schools seeing a surge in applications, but, elsewhere, application numbers are flat or even down compared to last year.

    Jeffrey Selingo himself been a student of the college admissions process for many years. He is author of the new book "Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions." And he's a former editor of "The Chronicle of Higher Education."

    Jeff Selingo, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    Help us understand this. If there's not as many ACT and SAT tests going to colleges, why does that mean top-tier schools are seeing an increase in applications?

    Jeff Selingo, Author, "Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions": Well, because, for most of these top-tiered schools, this is the first time they are test-optional, meaning students didn't have to send test scores in with their applications.

    And so what you probably saw is a number of students who think they have pretty good high school grades or very good high school grades, but may not be good test-takers. And they said, why not give it a shot? And so you saw many of these students this year apply to these top schools because they didn't have to submit test scores.

  • William Brangham:

    So, in that sense, it seems pretty clear that testing for certain students is a real barrier to trying to get into elite colleges.

  • Jeff Selingo:

    It is a real barrier, I think, because many students look at the average test scores for these top schools, and if they feel like they're not anywhere near that average, they're going to take themselves out of the running, and they're not even going to apply at all, even though all of these schools practice what is known as holistic admissions, meaning they're looking at other factors beyond test scores.

    And, in fact, my year inside college admissions for reporting the book, when I sat inside the admissions offices at Emory, at Davidson, at the University of Washington, they first look at a student's high school curriculum, their high school grades, before they ever even look at the test score.

    And so students are probably better off applying to these schools to try to see if they could potentially get in. And now we're starting to see them do that because they didn't have to submit test scores.

  • William Brangham:

    So, if that's driving a rise in applications to well-known schools, what's happening with the schools that are not quite so well-known?

  • Jeff Selingo:

    Well, what we're seeing is a decline in applications or steady state, for the most part, because those students don't know if schools are going to be in person next fall.

    They're willing — it seems like they're willing to take a chance on highly selective colleges, whether they're online or face to face. But many students, and particularly parents who have to pay the tuition bill, are unsure whether they want to pay that full tuition bill, take out loans or do whatever else that needs — they need to do in order to enroll in that school, when they're not sure whether they're going to be in person.

    And, as we know, a lot of the college experience is not only what happens inside the classroom, but it's also that residential experience outside the classroom. And that's essentially what many of these students are also paying for.

    And if they're going to be taking online classes from their high school bedroom, essentially, they don't want to necessarily do that. And so they're kind of holding out, maybe until the spring, to see whether these schools are going to go back in the fall and then apply at that point.

  • William Brangham:

    It seems that's also going to exacerbate the well-known economic divide between the schools that are wealthy with big endowments and those that are not, which are — which has again been exacerbated by the pandemic.

  • Jeff Selingo:

    It totally has been.

    We see that applications for the federal free application for student aid are down compared to past years, mainly from students with — from lower-income backgrounds. We know that undergraduate enrollment is way down, down 3 percent over last year, but freshmen enrollment in particular down more than 13 percent.

    And most of that is coming at two-year colleges, where, again, low- and middle-income students are more likely to go because it's close to home. They could live at home and it's less expensive.

    So we're starting to see the impact of COVID on those students who normally have a tough time going to college in normal times, and now are struggling to figure out a way, not only how to get to college, how to enroll in college, but also how to pay for it.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean — and, again, that's certainly got to be a concern that, if those kids don't go next year to college, we know the trajectory, right, is that they may never make that decision to go down the road.

  • Jeff Selingo:

    We may see a lost class of 2024 and a lost class of 2025 in some respects, right, because many of these students — some of these students who decided, for example, who graduated high school in the spring of 2020 may end up going to college in the fall of 2021.

    They may have taken only a year off. But some of those students might end up not going. Their families might have been impacted by COVID health issues, big financial issues for the most part. Maybe parents lost jobs. Students can't figure out a way to afford college.

    And so those are the students that I most worry about, who were probably on the edge to begin with about going to college, and now, a year later, may not have the resources to actually enroll.

  • William Brangham:

    You have also reported that transfer applications are up quite a bit of kids going from one college to another, one university to another. Why has that been happening?

  • Jeff Selingo:

    So, we're starting to see that anecdotally now, that students — two things are happening with those students. One is students are shopping for institutions they think will be face to face next fall.

    And so we're starting to see students express interest in colleges that have been largely face to face this year. And they think, well, if they're face to face this year, they're probably going to be face to face next year, and I don't want to go online this year.

    So, that's one thing that's happening. The other thing is that schools have been hit pretty hard financially by the pandemic. And so you're starting to see some students trade up academically or think they can trade up academically.

    And so they're now — maybe they were rejected by school a year ago. They now may think, because schools financially need more students, they think they might have a better shot of getting in next year if they transfer. So, that's one reason why, anecdotally, I'm hearing some schools are doing better with transfer applications so far.

  • William Brangham:

    It's just one more way in which this pandemic has disrupted so many aspects of our life.

    Jeff Selingo, author of "Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions," as always, great to have you on the "NewsHour." Thanks for being here.

  • Jeff Selingo:

    It was great to be here. Thank you.

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