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Since surveys of student behavior during the pandemic started coming out, one finding has been clear: the number of students going to college far from home was dropping. Some suggested this was a dramatic change, and others thought it would be minor, but there was agreement on the general trend.

For some private colleges, this opens up a way to recruit students. And as a result, at least four private colleges have reopened admissions for this year.

Centre, Franklin & Marshall and Muhlenberg Colleges all reopened admissions in the last week. Furman University reopened two weeks ago.

While these colleges appear to be making a dramatic change in the college admissions calendar, more colleges than in the past -- public and private -- are announcing that they have space in this fall's class and are accepting applications. Those colleges are not formally opening up admissions for the year, which in years past seemed to suggest a panic about filling seats.

The View From the Colleges

Robert Springall, vice president for enrollment management at Muhlenberg, said he's got about 420 deposits for a freshman class that he'd hoped would equal 570. (The college extended the deadline to reply to an admissions offer to June 1, so that number will go up, but he also expects more summer melt -- people who deposit and then don't show up -- than in the past.)

So the college reopened admissions and sent an invitation to 20,000 high school seniors who live within 50 miles of the Pennsylvania campus and who had indicated an interest previously and hadn't applied.

Springall admits that he can't be sure how many of the students to whom Muhlenberg is reaching out will apply, let alone enroll.

Barbara K. Altmann is president of another Pennsylvania college, Franklin & Marshall. Franklin & Marshall is "slightly behind" on its target of a freshman class of 640. The college extended its deadline to May 15.

The college recently reached out to high school students who had expressed an interest in the college but hadn't applied, if they live within 175 miles. "In no way have we changed our approach to recruiting," Altmann said. "It's not like we will take anyone who applies."

Altmann said that F&M was "not in an existential crisis," but she acknowledged that the college would almost certainly end up with a smaller class size than it originally wanted.

But she said the college could thrive. It would just be a little smaller.

Franklin & Marshall also is unusual in that between 20 and 25 percent of its students are international, most of them from China.

To keep them, amid uncertainty over visas and travel, F&M is offering a semester program in Shanghai, in which new students will study online with Franklin & Marshall professors. Altmann said that if travel restrictions are loosened, she would send the professors to visit the students. She hoped the model also attracts students from elsewhere in Asia.

Centre College, in Kentucky, announced that it too would reopen admissions for this year.

“I expect the current crisis has led many students and families to re-evaluate their priorities in choosing a college,” said Bob Nesmith, Centre’s dean of admission and financial aid. “We believe we can and should help.”

Centre said that it would provide students with consideration for admission, general merit scholarships and available need-based financial aid from the college.

“In a year when so much is fluid, we think it is important for fairness and access to be transparent and public about working with late applicants, rather than having a process that is only available for those who ask,” Nesmith said. “We anticipate more student decisions are contingent this year than most. Surveys certainly say so. We’d like to be able to help good students in the region whose plans are changing -- that’s good for them and good for the college as well.”

Furman cited similar reasons.

M. Brad Pochard, associate vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid at Furman, said the university in recent weeks received inquires from students in the region (North and South Carolina, Georgia, and eastern Tennessee) who had originally wanted to go to college far from home. Now they want to go to college close to home.

"Seven have already applied, and they are highly qualified applicants," Pochard said.

How Different Is This?

The reality is that some colleges admit applicants this late every year, but they don't reopen their admissions process to do so. And historically, they have recruited any students who may have accepted an offer of admission elsewhere.

Some colleges -- generally those that admit most applicants -- admit applicants informally this time of year. Many colleges list themselves with the National Association for College Admission Counseling's "College Openings Update," which this year will be released tomorrow.

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy, said that the colleges reopening admissions are "putting themselves on the list."

But "there are a lot more colleges with space still available than in previous years," Hawkins said.

As of Thursday, "we had more than 600 colleges already on our list. If memory serves, we’re usually around 250 or so at this point in the update cycle, often topping out around 400 to 500."

"The fact that there are a significant number of colleges that would normally be well on their way to orientation and fall preparation still searching for students is indicative of how difficult this admission cycle has been and will be for the foreseeable future," Hawkins said.

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