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Throughout the country, colleges are facing a serious challenge: how to recruit students in an uncertain environment without being able to show off their campuses (at least in person).

Some colleges are changing policies -- there was a major push in the last week for test-optional admissions. Some of the colleges are only switching for a year or two or three. Other colleges are also adopting a range of policies to make it easier for students to say yes to an offer of admission in a very uncertain time. And colleges are moving to make online content and one-on-one virtual meetings good enough to persuade students to enroll.

Test-Optional Admissions

The biggest news on test-optional admissions was from the University of California system, which announced that next year, it will suspend requirements that students take either the SAT or the ACT. The suspension is only for those applying to enroll in the fall of 2021, and the university system suspended other requirements as well. A faculty panel of the university system had recommended in February -- before the coronavirus broke in the United States -- that the system keep the testing requirement.

The primary reason given for the cancellation was that the SAT and ACT have called off exams in April and May and have made it hard to take the exam.

The California State University system, which also requires the tests, has said it will provide "flexibility" on its requirements next year as well.

Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said it was "too soon to predict" the exact impact of the University of California's decision. FairTest has long called for test-optional admissions.

"The one-year ACT/SAT suspension can serve as the first step toward a full test-optional policy, a de facto pilot program," he said.

Generally, when colleges and universities have adopted experimental policies not to require the SAT or ACT, they have kept them, Schaeffer said.

Both the ACT and the College Board issued statements that stressed the temporary nature of the UC decision.

A statement by the ACT said, “Families across the nation are navigating a challenging and unprecedented time as the fight to [limit the] spread [of] COVID-19 has led to new realities that are creating concern and disruptions for students, educators, workers and employers alike. We understand that these unprecedented times call for tough decisions, like the one announced by the UC system today, and we stand ready to work with the UC regents during this crisis to develop solutions that will help to keep students on track to achieve their goals during this challenging time.”

The College Board statement said, "The health and safety of students is our first priority, and we are collaborating with higher education institutions to provide flexibility to students and to support admissions under these unprecedented circumstances. We’re working to address testing access issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic and will provide additional SAT testing dates and increased capacity as soon as the public health situation allows. If, unfortunately, schools cannot reopen this fall, we're pursuing innovative means to ensure all students can still take the SAT this fall. In every situation, we are committed to finding opportunities through which all students, especially low income students, can distinguish themselves in admissions.”

The problem for the College Board and the ACT is that many colleges are going test optional, in some cases for a temporary period and in some cases permanently. FairTest has a list of 50 colleges that have gone test optional since January, the fastest rate of growth ever.

Pomona College, one of the most competitive liberal arts colleges in the country, is going test optional for one year. Seth Allen, vice president for strategy and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pomona, said, "Given the amount of uncertainty and anxiety in the world as we deal with the COVID-19 crisis, this is the right thing to do for students who will be applying to colleges next school year."

Vassar College will shift, too. Sonya K. Smith, dean of admission and student financial services, said, “There are inherent inequities in standardized testing that have long been recognized by educators. We believe this new policy aligns us with our core value of access.”

Other colleges that have made the switch (for three years) include Davidson College and Rhodes College.

Other Policies

Test-optional admissions has, of late, attracted all kind of colleges, with most of the attention going to those that are the most competitive in admissions.

But many of the less competitive colleges are adjusting their policies as well. In particular they are changing the rules for when deposits are due.

Point Park University has extended the deadline to put down a deposit from May 1 to June 1, and a separate deadline for housing until July 1.

Albertus Magnus College cut the deposit for new students in half -- to $200 for residential students and to $175 for commuter students.

Grove City College also moved back its deposit for new students from May 1 to June 1.

How to Welcome Students

A real problem for campuses this year has been the campus visits they can't accommodate.

Hanover College, in Indiana, used a virtual tour to get things started and then offered a number of dates for more personal (but online) interaction.

Hartwick College, in New York, held an online event Saturday, for which 296 students registered, down a bit from the normal 325 for in-person visits. David Lubell, a spokesman, said that the college tried to replicate what it could with videos and live interactions. "You can't replicate the in-person experience, but we came close," he said.

About 80 percent of those registered participated in the event, Lubell said, which is far better than a typical online event (albeit in normal times).

Hartwick, like many other colleges, offers live chats with admissions officials, student affairs officials and the athletics director. Hartwick also had a talk with the health center director.

The success of the day, of course, won't be known until students respond to the admissions offers. Hartwick officials think, though, that they gave it a good shot.

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