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As the traditional May 1 college decision day approaches, admissions leaders have been expressing concern that a significant number of students who’ve paid deposits promising to attend certain campuses will opt against enrolling because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Such decisions could upend the models colleges and universities use to build their freshman classes -- and to balance their budgets.

Today, newly released data from polling of U.S. high school seniors suggest admissions officers may have good reason to be worried.

About 12 percent of such students who have already made deposits no longer plan to attend a four-year college full-time, according to the polling. The findings are being shared today by the consulting firm Art & Science Group, which polled 1,171 high school seniors from April 21-24.

Admissions officers always expect some students who told a college they planned to attend not to enroll. The phenomenon has a name: summer melt. Different surveys show summer melt affecting between 10 percent and 20 percent of students.

But the new data specifically about students who have already deposited is particularly concerning coming at this point in this particular year, said Nanci Tessier, senior vice president at Art & Science.

“Here you are before May 1, and you may already have lost a very important component of your class that you’ve been banking on coming,” she said.

Colleges and universities may have no easy way of quickly knowing which students are going to walk away from their deposits, she added. Leaders may find out which students melt over the summer when bills are due or when students are filling out their residence life forms. But if campuses are closed in the fall, students may not be filling out those residence life forms as consistently as they have in the past.

More than 400 colleges and universities have changed their deposit deadlines this year, often to June 1. But the May 1 date is still considered an important waypoint this year, as many colleges opted not to change their deadline and the date still has significance in the popular imagination.

College admissions were expected to be under pressure even before the coronavirus hit because of recent changes to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. The changes, prompted by a federal antitrust investigation, had the potential on their own to supercharge competition for students.

Art & Science’s new polling revealed several other data points suggesting prospective college students remain unsettled in the weeks after the coronavirus outbreak shuttered campuses, pushed spring tours online and threw into doubt on-campus education for the fall. One out of six students who had planned to attend a four-year college full-time before the coronavirus struck no longer plan to do so, the new polling found. Of those students, 40 percent already made a deposit.

Another two-thirds of students expressed some concern that they would not be able to attend the college or university that is their first choice.

Those findings line up with what Art & Science found in a March poll. But it’s striking that they haven’t changed as decision day nears for students, said Craig Goebel, a principal at the firm.

“We found the results to be stark and very concerning [for] mid-March as the pandemic started to hit the country,” he said.

Admissions experts had hoped students would grow more accepting of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus outbreak as the weeks progressed.

“But in fact we found extremely similar responses,” Goebel said.

About 40 percent of students hadn’t made a deposit anywhere when the Art & Science polling closed. Coming this late in the admissions cycle, that statistic may reflect students’ uncertainty about college this fall.

More than four-fifths of students who have not sent in a deposit said they doubted their ability to attend the college or university that is their first choice.

Those not making deposits were more dubious than others that campuses will be open in the fall. They also appear to have fewer educational options available to them than do other students. And they are more likely to be first-generation students, students of color, students with relatively low standardized test scores or students with lower income than others.

Taken on the whole, the data could suggest colleges and universities should try to double down on student outreach over the summer. That means staying in touch with any students who were wait-listed, those who may still deposit and even those who have already deposited.

Work with individual institutions suggests prospective students have high expectations, Art & Science’s leaders said. Students want to hear from colleges.

“If the expectations are not met, some of the consequences are disastrous,” said Rick Hesel, a principal at the consulting firm.

The findings of this consultant’s polls are broadly consistent with other survey data released in recent weeks.

More than one out of 10 high school seniors who had planned to attend four-year colleges before the coronavirus hit were likely to change their plans, according to a survey conducted in March by the marketing and research firm SimpsonScarborough. Another one out of 10 said at the time it was too soon to say what they would do. That left open the possibility that nearly a quarter of students could be changing their plans.

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