The NCSL Blog


By Andrew Smalley

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the closures of college and university campuses across the country, creating an unprecedented conclusion to the spring semester.

Credit: The Los Angeles TimesStudents and professors scrambled to transition to online courses, and many institutions moved to provide refunds to students for housing and dining charges.

Schools are now focusing on the next academic year and although May 1 is traditionally National College Decision Day for high school seniors, significant uncertainty remains around the admissions and enrollment landscape.

The traditional recruiting and admissions process, which was already slated to become vastly more competitive due to changes adopted by college admissions officers late last year, has been completely changed by the pandemic.

With restrictions that prevent campus tours and admissions events, colleges have quickly begun to offer online events and virtual tours to provide outreach to prospective students. Schools have also given students more time to make their decision. According to ACCEPT Group, more than 300 schools have extended admissions deadlines to June 1 or later.

Many schools have also loosened or temporarily eliminated requirements for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. All University of California schools will not require ACT and SAT scores, and Cornell University became the first Ivy League institution to go test-optional for at least the next year. Both the ACT and the College Board, which administers the SAT, have announced plans to offer additional make-up exams later in summer and fall.

Even as schools work to adapt, significant recruitment and admissions challenges remain. First, the extent to which campuses will be able to open in the fall remains unclear, although several schools have recently announced intentions to reopen with social distancing strategies in place.

Even if schools do reopen, economic uncertainly could also depress enrollment. A national poll from the Art and Science Group found that nearly two-thirds of prospective students are concerned they may not be able to attend their first-choice postsecondary institution.

Another survey from Simpson Scarborough found that 10% of college-bound seniors who planned to enroll in college have already changed their plans. Schools may also face challenges retaining students. The same survey found that 26% of students consider themselves unlikely to return to school in the fall or believe it is “too soon to tell” if they will be able to reenroll.

Most projections indicate lower fall enrollments are likely. Estimates from the American Council on Education forecast that enrollments for the next academic year will drop by 15%, including a 25% decline in the number of international students. Data from the National College Attainment Network shows that Free Application Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completions for the 2020-21 school year are down 2.8% compared to the prior year.

Enrollment declines among out-of-state and international students are likely to be especially crippling for colleges, since these students often pay more in tuition. At public flagship institutions in 21 states, more than 40% of enrolled freshmen are from out-of-state.

While the enrollment and admissions situation appears grim for institutions, high school seniors could have more admissions offers from institutions that are struggling to meet their enrollment targets.

For all education resources related to COVID-19 visit this page

Andrew Smalley is a research analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.