For many high school students, the last few years of their public school journeys are occupied by one looming question: what will I do after high school? This question became muddied for graduates of the Class of 2020 when the global COVID-19 pandemic not only upended senior proms and graduations, but also every aspect of their decisions in pursuing post-secondary education.
Faced with a tide of uncertainty, seniors were forced to make a choice between taking a gap year or committing to attend a school they had might never have visited. Statistics show that for many seniors, a gap year was the decision. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in October 2020, 62.7 percent of the 2020 high school graduating class aged 16 to 24 were enrolled in a college or university, down from 66.2 percent in 2019. The report notes that this change reflects the overarching effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over a year after initial lockdowns, the graduating high school class of 2021 is still facing challenges due to the pandemic amid the start of a return to normalcy.
According to 18-year-old Allison Sauers, a graduating senior at Penn Manor High School in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the pandemic was an aid in her college decision. She said it gave her time to consider what she really wanted to do with her life, and time to pick the right school for her goals.
“I could think more about what I wanted to do versus what I wanted before the pandemic, and I could actually do some reflection,” Sauers said. “That reflection helped me figure out what I enjoy doing and what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
Another of Penn Manor’s graduating seniors, 18-year-old Luke Horst, will be an incoming computer science student at Drexel this fall. He was able to visit Drexel in person, which is an experience many students weren’t afforded this year or last. Horst cited the pandemic as having a small influence on his college decision, saying he already had an idea of where he wanted to attend prior to the shutdowns.
“There were a good amount of resources I could find online,” Horst said. “That definitely helped.”
He also pointed to Drexel’s virtual Admitted Students Day, as well as a virtual presentation on the co-op program, as experiences that aided in his decision to attend Drexel.
High school counselors have also been able to track trends among the 2021 graduating class and how they compare to the class of 2020’s experiences.
According to Sallie Bookman, who has been a gifted counselor for 21 years at Penn Manor High School, the pandemic has affected students less this year compared to last. Students in 2020 were not expecting a global pandemic, but this year’s graduating class has been dealing with it for over a year.
Jonathan Zimmerman, another gifted counselor who has worked at Penn Manor High School for seven years, said that his students haven’t been met with any unique troubles due to the pandemic. He points to financing college as the biggest hurdle, but that has always been the case.
“I would say, overall, I think a lot of students — at least my students that I advise — are just approaching it like nothing has changed, ” Zimmerman said.
He points out that the biggest change he has seen for students is the inability to tour their future campuses.
“[Students are] blindly applying to schools based on what they’ve seen online without actually stepping foot on campus,” Zimmerman said.
For many of his students, virtual tours were their only option. He pointed out one instance where a student gave up on virtual touring, deeming it a “worthless endeavor.”
Bookman said that while some students were able to tour, they might have missed the opportunity to sit in on a class or visited when the campus had fewer students, giving a less accurate picture of the actual experience.
The pandemic has also forced college admissions offices to adapt how they approach students. Given a year of experience, universities have been able to refine their virtual student outreach. Drexel’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Michael J. Keaton shared input from the university perspective.
“In response to COVID, we had to switch our main method of recruiting from face to face to virtual,” he said. “This past recruiting cycle, we participated in over 2,400 virtual events as a team, including college fairs, high school visits, counselor receptions, and individual student appointments.”
Keaton stressed that Drexel’s admissions numbers are strong, with the projected 2,800 first-year students for the fall exceeding this year’s goal by 200. Keaton also commented on the status of deferrals this year.
“We are not seeing an increased demand for deferrals,” he said. “I think students are eager to start their collegiate careers, especially with the rollout of vaccines and other measures to contain COVID.”