Wisconsin colleges are rethinking the way they court prospective students and get confirmations from those who have already gotten admission offers. With campuses closed and families being told to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19 there are concerns students may put higher education on hold, which could strain university budgets.
Spring is a critical time for colleges and universities working to build their new freshmen cohorts. Normally, students and their families are touring campuses as they make their final decision on where to go. But as the number of new coronavirus cases grows in Wisconsin, campuses are closed and families across the country have seen parents or guardians lose their jobs because of the virus and methods used to control its spread, such as strict social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders.
Chris Wills is an admissions consultant who pairs students with universities in Minnesota and Wisconsin through his company College Inside Track. He said while universities are offering virtual tours or online meetings of prospective students with current students or faculty, it’s not the same.
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“A lot of what sells the college is when that family goes to visit,” said Wills. “You hear people say, ‘I just knew, it just felt right.’ And I think you’re not going to realistically have that same feeling when you’re doing that online.”
Students generally have until May 1 to accept college admissions offers. In the world of college admissions the percentage of students that accept those offers and enroll is called the yield. Wills said campuses are concerned about a drop in yield, so they’re working on ways to hedge their bets.
“Some of the strategies that they’re using are to expand their waitlist, certainly admitting more students because of not being sure of how many are actually going to show up, extending or pushing back the decision deadline,” Wills said.
Marquette University Vice President of Enrollment Management John Baworowsky said in lieu of in-person campus visits they’re moving things online. But on top of that, he said the campus is making personal phone calls to touch base with students who have received offers. Now, current Marquette students that normally gave tours to prospective students are working phone banks making individual calls to high school students.
“What I found interesting is we’re not hearing from a lot of them calling us,” Baworowsky said. “It’s way more us calling them to remind them that the decision day is coming up on the first of May.”
Marquette, like other universities, has decided to allow students to apply for an extension of the confirmation deadline. This would allow students to decide by June 1 instead. The goal is to give families, who may have suffered layoffs during the pandemic, more time to consider the full weight of sending a child to college.
A survey of high school students conducted by the national consulting firm Arts and Science Group suggested that 1 in 6 were second guessing enrolling in a four-year university this fall due to COVID-19 disruptions. It also found an additional two-thirds of students felt they may have to change their first choice school as a result.
“So, those things will always worry us,” Baworowsky said. “On the one hand it might mean we might see more students, for example from the Milwaukee and the Chicago area, choose to enroll here because the other schools they were looking at are farther away from home.”
Another big unknown for Marquette, and other Wisconsin campuses, said Baworowsky, is how the closure of United States embassies around the world in countries impacted by the new coronavirus will affect the flow of international students.
Liz Jackson is the director of college counseling at consulting firm Galin Education in Madison. She said she’s heard families within the U.S. are thinking more about distance when considering what schools to send their kids to.
“I think the thought of having their child far away in a crisis is scary, and I think they feel more comfortable being able to hop in the car, go a couple hours, pick them up and bring them home if needed,” Jackson said.
University of Wisconsin-Madison Director of Admissions and Recruitment André Phillips said so far the number of prospective students confirming admission offers is close to where they were in 2019.
“April 1 to April 1 our numbers are comparable,” said Phillips. “So, I say that as being cautiously optimistic that over the next 31, 32 days if things continue in this fashion, we will find ourselves in a good position on May 1 or shortly thereafter when we take accounting.”
Phillips said the campus knows where it stands today and is thinking about what life may look like 15 or 30 days from now. But the further out they get the fewer answers they have about how enrollment could be impacted.
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