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One apparently widely ignored consequence of over a year of disrupted learning is a significant drop in grade point averages among a large number of high school juniors and seniors. In my conversations with affected students and in some surveys of academic progress in the spring and fall of 2020, it is clear that the drop-off is affecting the very students that selective colleges particularly have been trying to recruit: disadvantaged students, minorities, first-generation college students, rural students. Three questions immediately present themselves: What do the low grades actually mean for college admissions? Who is telling high school seniors what the new rules are? And what’s the perception of the students themselves about college?

Increasing Failure Rates

COVID-induced distance learning has resulted in a significant increase in failure rates among a host of good to excellent students. Recent reports show that since spring 2020:

  • In the Bay Area, a 50 percent increase in failing grades in some districts.
  • In New Mexico, one school reported that 79 percent of students failed at least one class; across the state that number hovers at 40 percent.
  • In Houston the failure rate was 42 percent.
  • In St. Paul, 40 percent failed at least one class.
  • In Kentucky, one high school reported that 65 percent of students failed at least one class; another school reported that among seniors 30 percent failed at least one class in fall 2020.
  • Austin schools experienced a 70 percent jump in class failure rates between October 2019 and October 2020.
  • Hawaii reported that 18 percent of seniors were off track to graduate because of at least one failure.

At the end of the fall grading period, one straight-A East Bay student suddenly found herself carrying one A, two C's and possibly an F. Another straight-A student at a public high school in central Oregon is looking at perhaps two A's, a C and likely a D. A normally good student in Fairfax, Va., reports failing everything, including physical education. Other students around the country report similar experiences.

Reasons for Increase in Failure Rates

One reason regularly reported for failure is that neither students nor their teachers have been prepared for the distance learning. Teachers are having to learn how to do distance learning on the fly, sometimes with disastrous results. Students may not have computer or internet access, or necessary computer skills. In addition, they are having to learn how to manage different expectations from each of their teachers. In the resulting confusion, students are failing to complete class projects on time and thus coping with cascading failures in their classes. In addition, the pandemic has forced students to take on many new chores, including taking care of younger siblings, taking care of housework or taking on a job to help out with family finances. That means not as much time to devote to classes during nonclass hours further exacerbating the noncompletion rates.

As a result, many seniors scheduled to graduate in spring 2021 are looking skeptically at going to college at all in the fall. They feel that their grades will keep them out or keep them from getting financial aid. And even if they get admitted, “going to college” really means more staying at home hunched over a computer, and they’re fed up with that.

College Responses to Grade Issues

Some colleges have issued reassuring announcements about accounting for grades affected by COVID-19. For example, the State of Washington’s Council of Presidents said that “Washington’s public four-year college and universities are integrating flexibility into admissions processes to ease, to the extent possible, the disruption for fall 2021 applicants. We recognize that while students must satisfy high school graduation requirements and meet minimum college admission requirements for freshmen, our institutions will not disadvantage 2021 fall applicants due to the pandemic’s effects on education delivery.” In other words, we understand distance learning may have messed with your GPA and will take that into account. Similarly, speaking for its highly selective brethren, Yale announced that “We also recognize that many students’ personal circumstances may make it especially difficult to achieve at their typical academic level during this time. These considerations will also be part of our committee’s whole-person review.”

Now that doesn’t mean that GPA will not be taken into account. The UC system will still require a minimum 3.0 for California resident admission (3.4 for nonresidents). And I haven’t found any indication that anyone has modified the strict GPA qualifications for financial aid. In other words, if you were a high-performing (3.75-4.0) student whose grades have fallen off, you’ll still get in, albeit probably with reduced financial aid. If you’re a pretty good student (3.0-3.75) whose grades have fallen off, you may not be admitted, and if you are, kiss the financial aid goodbye. California isn’t alone in this. Institutions across the country that may be willing to take grade declines into account for admissions have not adjusted financial aid requirements (for a variety of reasons, I know, but still …).

What’s Happening With High School Seniors?

Many students are struggling just to finish classes and haven’t taken the time to work on college applications. With the recurring immediate crises in their lives, college seems a long way off anyway, and the plunge in their grades, along with what they think that means for college admissions, has depressed them to the point that many are thinking, “Why bother?” One told me of two friends who decided to dump high school altogether; they were so far behind in their senior classes they could never catch up. And even those who will manage to struggle through to completing are pretty sure that they won’t qualify for financial aid, without which college isn’t possible; many simply won’t apply.

Obviously, some part of their despair is a result of their current overly pressured lives. Those who do complete high school this year may decide to take a gap year. Doing so will help them recover from a distressing final high school experience and take a measured look at what they want out of college. The question is, two or three years hence, will colleges still have procedures in place to consider COVID-affected mediocre grades? Tens of thousands of 2021 seniors hope so.

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