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It’s May 1, National College Decision Day, the day high school seniors commit to a college.

But for many seniors -- and the colleges that are courting them -- National College Decision Day will come and go with no decision.

“At this point, May 1 is just another spring Friday,” said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education and co-chair of the Department of Education Leadership Management and Policy at Seton Hall University, in New Jersey. “It doesn’t have much special meaning anymore.”

More than 400 colleges have extended the deadline for admitted students to submit deposits to June 1 or later to give students and families more time to make their decision amid the uncertainty -- financial and otherwise -- caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In an Inside Higher Ed survey of college presidents, 39 percent said they had delayed admission deadlines in response to the pandemic.

But even before the pandemic, May 1 was going to be different this year. The National Association for College Admission Counseling voted last fall to remove language from its code of ethics that prohibited colleges from knowingly recruiting or offering enrollment incentives to students who have already enrolled at, or committed to, other institutions, and that enshrined May 1 as a date of special significance. (The now-deleted language said, “May 1 is the point at which commitments to enroll become final, and colleges must respect that.”) ​NACAC approved the change in response to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice into possible antitrust violations, and the change -- voluntarily voted on by the membership -- was subsequently codified in a formal consent decree with the Justice Department after it filed suit.

“That was already going to change things, and now we have all the fallout from the pandemic,” Jayne Caflin Fonash, president of NACAC and an independent college counselor, said of the agreement with the Justice Department.

“If you were to poll colleges and universities today and say, 'How many of you have completely filled your class?' the number of them would be relatively small because of concerns about the pandemic and how that affects both domestic and international students,” Fonash said. “It’s a question mark in terms of overseas travel, and that means that the international students who have comprised increasing amounts of college classes here in the U.S., that number may be diminished because of travel restrictions as well as family concerns about their children traveling to another country.”

College admission officials who extended the deadline say they want to give families and students more time. Providence College, a Roman Catholic institution in Rhode Island, decided just this week to extend the deposit deadline from May 1 to June 1 after being inundated with requests for extensions.

“It was one thing when it was just a handful, but now it’s over 200 requests for extensions,” said Raul Fonts, the associate vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Providence. “Students need more time at this point.”

The University of Oregon announced just this week that it would extend the deadline from May 1 to Sept. 1. Classes at Oregon start in late September.

"In the last two months, everyone's lives have been turned upside down. For all of us and our students and their families, they’ve got lots of issues in their personal and professional lives. They missed March and April, which are times to visit. We had to cancel events in their hometowns," said Roger J. Thompson, Oregon's vice president for student services and enrollment management. 

"We felt like this was the best thing to do to help our students and families," he said. "Having said that, it complicated our lives significantly."

Some colleges that kept the May 1 deadline said they were being generous with extension requests. Faye Tydlaska, vice president for enrollment management and marketing at Rollins College, a private institution in Florida, said the college stuck with the May 1 deadline but messaged all admitted students indicating the admissions office would be flexible if students needed more time or needed to make a reduced enrollment deposit.

“We’ve seen several dozen students requesting deposit extensions, which we’ve granted,” Tydlaska said.

Many admitted students have suffered a loss of family income due to furloughs or job losses, and all students are facing uncertainty about whether in-person classes will resume this fall at their colleges -- all factors that serve to complicate their choices and compel them to ask for more time.

But while the circumstances of this year are extreme, May 1 had already lost a lot of its luster. At most colleges, admissions professionals continue to build their classes throughout the summer. In Inside Higher Ed’s 2019 survey of admission officers, just 37 percent said they had met their enrollment goals by May 1.

Back in 2014, Kelchen, the Seton Hall professor, wrote a blog post exploring how National College Decision Day doesn’t apply to a lot of students, including students applying to community colleges and less selective four-year institutions. And he noted that just because a student submits a deposit doesn't necessarily mean the student will enroll; some students submit deposits to multiple institutions.

“Colleges will be looking for students up until the add/drop date for the fall semester, and colleges will be competing for students who are currently enrolled elsewhere up until that date as well,” Kelchen said.

“For students, it’s definitely a good thing: the more competition there is for the student to enroll, the more likely it is that the student gets a better deal,” he said. “The drawback to this is much more for the colleges. They have much more uncertainty about what their incoming class looks like. They have much more uncertainty about tuition revenues, and they may have to give students more discounts to attend if students have more time to compare financial aid offers and negotiate and pit colleges against each other.”

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