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Amid COVID-19 uncertainties, Minnesota colleges are trying to hang on to prospective students

Admissions officials at Minnesota’s colleges and universities are hoping that all the ways that they’ve adapted in the wake of the pandemic will offer prospective students reassurance — and keep schools’ enrollments on track. 

In the midst of checking in with her Edina High School peers and teachers on Zoom video conferencing calls last week, Emma McIntyre began thinking through her post-graduation plans.

Emma McIntyre
Emma McIntyre
Just a few weeks back, the senior was looking forward to renting a house in Bloomington with a couple of her friends and starting classes at Normandale Community College. She’d study there for two years, then likely transfer to the University of Minnesota to pursue a business degree.

But now, she and all of her future roommates have suddenly found themselves out of work, thanks to the temporary closure of hair salons and restaurants in response to the COVID-19 crisis. They’ve been applying to local grocery stores — which have stayed open during the statewide shutdown — but no one is having luck getting hired right now.

“That puts me in kind of a tricky situation, because my mom was going to be moving, downsizing houses,” McIntyre said. “It wasn’t supposed to be affecting her. Now, if I don’t move out in June, I’ll probably have to crash on her couch.”

Her backup living option puts her in a much better situation than many, she says. But her worries extend into this fall — and to her entire post-secondary schooling plans. “My family has a military background, and my dad has been urging me to look into the reserves,” she said.

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Given all of the financial unknowns right now, she’s seriously considering putting her college plans on hold. “Paying for college has alway been something I’m thinking of,” she said. “Just, with a possibility of a recession occurring, and things like that, it’s been a lot more stressful figuring out how I’m going to afford school and things like that.”

Her experience aligns with reports highlighting just how “up in the air” — as McIntyre has put it — plans have become for college-bound high schoolers. According to a national survey of 487 prospective college students, conducted by the Art & Science Group (a higher-ed consulting firm), one in six high-school seniors who’d planned to attend a four-year college full time pre-outbreak think they’ll change their plans. 

Asked what they plan to do instead, 35 percent of those respondents said they expected to take a “gap year” and another 35 percent said they’d enroll part-time in a bachelor’s program. 

In Minnesota, admissions officers at both public and private higher education institutions say it’s too early to tell how all of this might play out in the fall, but that they’re hoping that some of the ways that they’ve adapted in the wake of the pandemic will offer prospective students reassurance — and keep their enrollments on track. 

Converting to virtual campus visits

Mai Nhia Xiong-Chan, the vice president of enrollment management at Hamline University and the president-elect of the Minnesota Association for College Admission Counseling, says developing alternative engagement opportunities for prospective and admitted students should be a top priority right now. 

Mai Nhia
Mai Nhia Xiong-Chan
In analyzing enrollment data for her own institution, she’s found that students who actually visit campus enroll at almost twice the rate as those who don’t visit campus. “Not being able to invite and to bring people on campus, I think, is going to be difficult for many campuses to overcome,” she said. “And so being able to pivot quickly — and still trying to create an engaging experience — is really going to be necessary, in order to make sure that our students know that a school like Hamline still can be a terrific fit for them, even in these uncertain times.”

Xiong-Chan’s office at Hamline has posted virtual tours to the university’s website, and they’re in the process of converting a popular admitted student event to an online format that’ll offer students a chance to engage with each other and ask questions. 

Admissions staff at the University of Minnesota also responded quickly by producing and posting two new video walking tours of the school’s Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses. They’re also now offering virtual individual appointments with admissions counselors.

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Meanwhile, the admissions team at St. Catherine University is admittedly “a little bit behind on virtual tours,” says Drew Melendres, senior vice president for enrollment management and student affairs. He and his team are currently pulling together a handful of virtual events for admitted and prospective students, including one for those who would have participated in an overnight experience under normal circumstances. 

Relaxing deadlines, application requirements

Melendres says his office has also made a more immediate adaptation: they’ve relaxed the typical May 1 non-refundable deposit deadline for admitted applicants, allowing them to hold onto their seat even if they’re not yet in a position to commit in a period of such great uncertainty. “We’re trying to be flexible around these deadlines that, traditionally, we’d say are pretty firm,” he said. 

Drew Melendres
Drew Melendres
In line with a growing number of post-secondary institutions nationwide, Hamline moved its enrollment decision day back a month, to June 1, for all prospective students. The university also forged ahead with another change that’s becoming more and more common: it dropped the ACT or SAT admissions requirement.

These changes will help alleviate some of the unique obstacles that students and their families are having to navigate right now  — things like a loss of ACT and SAT testing opportunities (with delays and cancellations by both testing companies announced last month), the inability to physically visit a campus to see if it feels like a good fit, and more limited access to high school counselors and even transcripts during school closures. 

“We want to make sure we’re not forcing people’s hand by May 1,” Xiong-Chan said. “If high schools are shut down, if financial aid letters aren’t going out because colleges are shut down, if testing centers are not open, all of those things are going to create obstacles for students to feel like they’re prepared to make a decision for the fall.”

In St. Peter, the private Gustavus Adolphus College has opted to stick with the traditional May 1 deadline. Given current circumstances, however, Rich Aune, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions, says the school is emailing all admitted students to let them know that “we’re happy to work with them and provide a timeline that works for them,” Aune said. 

Rich Aune
Rich Aune
Even with all admissions staff working remotely, Aune says there haven’t been any major disruptions to the admissions timeline. They’re still aiming to respond to all inquiries within 24 hours; and they’ve been able to send at least one staff member into the office to print out new batches of admissions letters and mail them out. 

“As of today, we’re actually ahead in deposits, compared to last year,” Aune said. “Our numbers are actually really good right now. I’m also conscious that things could change.”

As an open-access institution, Normandale didn’t have to adjust early decision or ACT/SAT deadlines, since those requirements don’t exist for the school. But they are doing what they can to eliminate barriers for prospective students, including waiving the application fee for now, says Dara Hagen, vice president of student affairs. 

Additionally, they’re participating in a pilot project to use multiple measures for student placement rather than a standalone exam, since they’re placement testing provider has shut down during the COVID-19 situation. “So we are looking at how we will utilize high school GPA, and how we will engage students who maybe aren’t recently out of high school, to place them using alternative methods,” she said. 

At Minnesota State University Moorhead, a state school that utilizes a rolling admissions process, the COVID-19 situation has prompted a change in communications strategy so that students know they don’t need to make any financial commitment by May 1. 

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Tom Reburn, undergraduate admissions director, says his financial aid team has also been working with students who now need to revise the federal student aid forms that they’d already submitted — some as far back as last fall — to qualify for a larger amount of aid, as household incomes are impacted by a recent loss of jobs. 

Tom Reburn
Tom Reburn
“The whole structure of our university had been upended,” he said. “But as far as our students engaging, and doing the necessary steps in the process — completing the financial aid application, signing up for a registration time — are still occurring at the pace that we would expect.”

New recruitment opportunities

Despite nationwide declines in enrollment — something many campuses had been either grappling with pre-pandemic — a number of local admissions officials are already thinking about how the current situation may actually help their enrollment numbers. 

At St. Kate’s, Melendres says the fact that admissions staff have had to work remotely during a peak time of year has actually proven beneficial in many ways. “Our personal touch makes a difference. And we’re able to do more of that, since many of us are working remotely now,” he said, noting his staff are devoting even more time to one-on-one communications with both graduating high schoolers and transfer students. 

He also points out that last year Minnesota was a net exporter of post-secondary students, meaning the number of Minnesotans who left to attend college in another state exceeded the number of students from other states who enrolled at a Minnesota campus.  “We’re a strong second or third choice for students who tend to go out of state,” he said, adding that, as some surveys have suggested, “more could choose to stay closer to home, which could lead to a positive for us.” 

Admissions numbers for Concordia University have so far held steady, said Kim Craig, vice president of enrollment management. Students’ ability to engage in the application process right now may be enhanced by the fact that “they have more time to spend at home” right now, she says. And as students and parents across the state acclimate to online learning she sees an even greater opportunity for Concordia to broaden its appeal to new students. “We are hearing more students look at online opportunities for this next year,” she said. “We’ve been doing online education for over 20 years.”

Schools are also looking at opportunities to appeal to non-traditional students, as the workforce needs change in the wake of the pandemic. “There’s likely to be an increased need for people to return to school for further training, or maybe a re-training — either through a credit program, or customized training programs,” said Normandale’s Dara Hagen. “I think there’s an opportunity to lean into that as well.”

Support to stay college-bound

While families all across the state are feeling the impacts of the pandemic, first-generation students — especially those from low-income households — are particularly at risk of having their college plans derailed. 

It’s a concern on the mind of Geoff Wilson, executive director of the Minnesota branch of the national nonprofit College Possible. The organization serves about 7,000 Minnesota students, starting their junior year in high school and continuing through to the completion of a degree — and beyond. For those who are college-bound, the focus now has been on helping them “stay focused on their long-term future, and not letting that go by the wayside,” Wilson said. 

Kevin Morales
Kevin Morales
Program staff are also reminding college-bound students that jobs that require some form of a post-secondary education “tend to be more recession proof.”

For Kevin Morales, a graduating senior at Highland Park in St. Paul, the pandemic has complicated his college decision, but it hasn’t deterred him from starting that next chapter of his life. 

He’s been accepted to four colleges, including two in other states. But he’s having a tough time making a decision, mostly because he didn’t have a chance to tour MSU Moorehead before things shut down. Even though it offers the programs he’s most interested in, he’s stuck on the fact that he won’t be able to “feel what it’s like to actually be on campus.”

Even though his senior year has been upended — no prom, and even a graduation ceremony up in the air — he’s focusing on what’s still possible. “I’m still willing to follow what I believe is best for me,” he said. “Because even though the situation is as it is right now, I tend to stay positive and be faithful.”