Mariah Ashley, a Schenectady High School senior, has her college choice down to two finalists: Hobart and William Smith Colleges, a small liberal arts college in Geneva, and SUNY Stony Brook, one of the state’s flagship public universities.
Hobart is a private college with around 2,300 students, fewer than attend Schenectady High School, located on the shores of Seneca Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes. Stony Brook has over 25,000 students and is situated among a tangle of thoroughfares on Long Island. To choose between the large university an hour or two drive from New York and the small college with a lake view, Ashley planned to visit after her admittance – a standard rite of passage for many high school seniors on the cusp of going away to college.
“The schools are definitely really opposite,” Ashley said in a recent phone interview. “I unfortunately didn’t have the chance to visit them before I applied, but I thought of course I had the ability to go after I’m accepted in the spring.”
This year’s senior class, of course, is going through a new kind of rite that few others can relate to as high schools and colleges across the country closed and seniors are left at home wondering if they will even have a chance to attend a graduation or start college on campus in the fall – let alone visit for a tour and class this month.
Colleges are offering virtual tours and online discussions among students, faculty and administrators as they look to convince students to place the deposit that reserves them a seat in next fall’s freshman class. Live admissions counselors are constantly online and available to answer questions, and high school counselors working from home are fielding emails and calls from stressed students and families.
“We are like, ‘Trust us, it’s awesome,’” Matt Malatestsa, Union College vice president for admissions, financial aid and enrollment, said of trying to woo prospective students from afar. “April is usually the busiest campus visit month of the year.”
Students and admissions officials alike acknowledge the virtual format is far from ideal at this stage in the admissions process – at many schools, students hear back with an acceptance in late March and are expected to make a final decision by May 1, though some schools like Siena College have extended that deadline.
“I’m choosing between a really large school and a relatively smaller school, so the contrast for the different schools, to really make a decision I was relying on seeing the campus first hand, and seeing how it looks when there are students on it,” Ashley said. A tour she had planned at Stony Brook last month was canceled and now she won’t have a chance to visit either of her final choices.
“That was taken away,” she said.
Hard to put into words
The value of the college visit takes on an ineffable quality when students and admissions professionals explain why it is so important to step foot on a campus. Students describe an experience similar to an epiphany when stepping on to a campus and just knowing it’s a place they could spend the next four years of their life – or knowing they couldn’t spend the next four years of their life there.
“I went on other college tours where on paper I loved the school and when I visited the school, right away I knew it was not for me, because of how I felt on campus,” Ashley said.
Ashley applied to 10 schools and was accepted to five of them, including Hofstra and St. Lawrence. She earned large scholarships at Hobart and Stony Brook and was accepted into the schools’ Educational Opportunity Program and Higher Education Opportunity Program, respectively, programs designed to offer financial and academic support to students who demonstrate strong academic potential.
While she hasn’t visited her final contender, Ashley had the chance to visit a handful of colleges throughout her time in high school, learning the types of things should would want in a college.
“Without those visits I wouldn’t have much information at all about where I want to go,” she said.
But for some students deciding between schools they have seen and those they haven’t, the inability to visit a campus is too high a hurdle to clear. No matter how hard college officials try, the virtual tour at best can only be a pale imitation of the real thing.
“The colleges are doing a really great job with all these online webinars trying to recreate the experience of coming to campus, but at the end of the day nothing is going to be able to be like being on campus and touring it yourself,” said Niskayuna High School senior Dan Klepeis.
Kelpeis, who applied to over 15 schools, has visited some schools but waited to visit others until after he was accepted. He said he decided to drop from consideration a handful of schools he was unable to visit, narrowing his options to the University at Albany and Binghamton University, both state universities he has had a chance to tour.
He had planned to spend time in April visiting the University of Massachusetts, the University of Rhode Island and the University of Connecticut, three schools he was accepted to, but the halt to campus visits halted his comfort with committing to a school he has never seen in person.
“All the schools I applied to because I could potentially see myself there and I liked their programs,” said Klepeis, who plans to study bio or biochemistry on a path to medical school. “It was hard to completely throw them out because I liked their programs, but I value the actual experience and feeling of a campus and the actual life on campus more than I value those statistics… I didn’t have enough information to feel comfortable enough to make a decision that would impact me for four years.”
Some students were fortunate enough to have already settled on their final choice before the pandemic struck. Students who apply “early decision” at colleges make a binding commitment to attend if accepted and get notice of their application status in the winter; some colleges accept students throughout the year.
Maddie Beltramo, a Niskayuna senior, applied early decision to Grinnell College, a small liberal arts college in Iowa, where she has also committed to play soccer. She visited the school in October – one in a long line of campus visits – and said she knew then that’s where she planned to go.
“It was just the environment; I went to classes I really liked,” she said. “The people there are… everyone is weird and interesting and immediately I knew I wanted to go there.”
Beltramo said she feels lucky to have already been settled with her college decision prior to the disruptions caused by the pandemic and said her friends are grappling with hard choices; one friend even drover to a nearby campus in recent weeks for a first-hand look, if not a tour.
Schenectady High School senior Niya Hope-Glenn has her list narrowed to four schools: Howard University in Washington, D.C., Cornell University, New York University, and the University of Rochester. She has only ever visited NYU’s Manhattan campus.
Hope-Glenn has joined virtual tours, online discussions, researched the area surrounding the schools, watched YoutTube videos from students and former students, including students who dropped out.
But she is disappointed she won’t get a chance to visit the schools first hand as she tries to make a decision about where to go, weighing location, programs and financial aid.
Each school offers its benefits and potential downsides, she said. She was accepted into a special scholars program at the University of Rochester; NYU has interested her for years while on trips to the city, but she wants a more traditional campus feel; she likes the idea of going to Howard where she would be surrounded by other students of color with “like-minded goals,” but the financial aid is not the strongest. Cornell offered her a full ride and she likes the flexibility in majors it offers.
“I really am ping-ponging between everything… I’m looking a lot of different factors,” she said. “It is a big decision.”
Hope-Glenn said she has visited Union, Skidmore, Siena and a couple of other colleges but also noted campus visited can be a source inequity for students from different backgrounds and that that may be exacerbated by the inability to visit schools this spring.
“I think about other low-income students and how difficult it is to travel to other schools, and they are robbed of that opportunity because of the quarantine,” she said.
Like other seniors, Hope-Glenn has been dreaming about and planning for this decision for years . When she was in middle school, she made a list of the 40 things she wanted to be when she grew up: “Number one was president,” she said.
Her interests in middle school gravitated to make-up artistry but flipped to the sciences early in high school when a teacher encouraged her to think about the fundamental production of make-up and all that goes into it. She took a chemistry class her sophomore year, loved it and now plans to study chemical engineering in college.
“Makeup is always going to be there, but I kind of like the deep, dark unknown stuff of the STEM fields,” Hope-Glenn said.
If Hope-Glenn chooses Cornell, she will be classmates with Niskayuna senior Aimee Bostwick, who made her decision to go to the Ithaca-based Ivy earlier this month.
Bostwick has been dreaming of going to Cornell since she was young: her dad’s friend, a veterinarian, went to Cornell, and she wanted to be a veterinarian, so she thought she had to go to Cornell, she recalled.
She attended a soccer camp at Cornell in middle school and loved the feel of the campus, an early “aha” moment of knowing when a school is the right place.
“I was a big Harry Potter fan and when I walked on campus, I saw the big, old buildings and though this is just like Harry Potter, I have to come here,” she said. The dream of a Cornell acceptance pushed her to succeed in school, she said, and gave her a goal to work toward. “I felt like I had to accomplish something and that’s what it was.”
But in the long process of considering a list of schools – beginning the summer after ninth grade – studying and taking entrance tests, writing essays, gathering recommendations and submitting applications, Bostwick opened to other possibilities.
She had planned to return to NYU, where she was accepted while sequestered at home last month, and visit the University of Rochester for the first time during an admitted-students day, before making a final decision, even if she was still leaning toward Cornell.
“I still wanted to see before I did anything,” she said.
Colleges trying to adapt too
If you visit the websites of colleges like Union, Skidmore and Siena, you will be greeted by a chat box: an admissions is waiting to answer your questions.
In a more normal year, Union would host three information sessions a day in April, as well as hold special open houses for admitted students. Visiting students would have a chance to meet students and faculty, sit in on a class, peak inside a dorm room and check out the school’s new science and engineering center. Instead, the college hosts six virtual information sessions a day. College staff quickly put together about 20 videos for students to watch from home; some videos were filmed on campus in the days before it closed more fully, while others have been filmed at the homes of Union professors and staff.
“The big picture, what we are really trying to help people understand is what opportunities await them at Union,” said Malatesta, the Union admissions official. “For different students that’s different things.”
Sometimes those opportunities can be hard to communicate, he said, because Union’s pitch centering on the benefits of melding a traditional liberal arts approach with strong engineering and science programs can be a nuanced one.
The college got a bit of a head start this year, though, allowing students for the first time to apply “early action” – an early application deadline and early acceptance response that’s not tied to a binding commitment. The college received a record number of applications and was able to host an admitted-students day in February of students who applied early action and were admitted in December. Last year, Malatesta said, 650 admitted students visited Union in April. But the college has actually welcomed slightly more admitted students to campus this year than last year, Malatesta said, which he attributed to increased interest in the college.
He said the tricky part of communicating the college’s message during the pandemic is that he is asking students and families to think about a long-term investment and commitment, something that could shape the student’s life for years to come, while so many are consumed with the worries and anxieties of the here and now.
“The bigger challenge is the pandemic and the freezing of our economy and the challenges that is putting into our personal lives, as we are asking them to make a commitment to an expensive college,” Malatesta said, noting the school still commits to meet the financial needs of all admitted students and is revisiting financial aid packages with families on a case-by-base basis.
Katie Szalda, Siena College director of admissions, said Siena has long tried to take a personalized approach with the recruitment and admissions process, answering student questions, working to show them how the school can serve their needs. She said the college has also long offered video chats and other approaches to engage students virtually.
“We are working individually with admitted students, finding out what they need to make their decision,” she said. “For every student it’s a different answer.”
That virtual approach has had to ramp up in recent days. Siena, like other colleges, is offering an expanded schedule of virtual campus tours and online question-and-answer sessions and is working through new financial challenges with families.
She said colleges now have to demonstrate to students how they will be supportive in a crisis and in difficult times.
“The college process they have known is turned completely upside down,” Szalda said.
Senior year turned upside down
The high school seniors weighing tough college decisions are also grappling with the feeling that the second half of their senior year was stolen away. The students can’t share the successes of a college acceptance with friends – at least face to face – don’t know whether they will have senior prom or high school graduation.
“Can you imagine waiting your whole entire life to have that moment of your name being called, and it might not happen?” Ashley said.
The seniors may have a rightful claim among students to the most worthy complaints of the academic disruptions wrought by the crisis. For the Class of 2020, the sting of the pandemic’s timing is still a long way from subsiding.
“It would have been great if the pandemic could have waited just three more months,” Beltramo said.