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5 ways COVID-19 is impacting students’ college application process—and how you can respond

February 2, 2021


5 ways COVID-19 is impacting students’ college application process-and how you can respond

<a data-primary-product="" href="">Madeleine Rhyneer</a> By Madeleine Rhyneer February 02, 2021 8 min read Illustration-PAE-Blog-Illustration-3-1000x700

As the pandemic has unfolded, enrollment leaders continue to anticipate and react to shifting student college application plans and actions. To understand just how COVID-19 has affected students, we surveyed more than 4,500 high school seniors about their application plans, FAFSA completion, and thoughts on college cost. Here’s what we learned.

Survey methodology

We surveyed 4,537 college-going high school seniors across late November 2020 and early December 2020. We over-communicated with male students to get a higher percentage of male respondents than we typically see in survey results (33%) and similar to other studies, about 21% of survey participants are first-generation students. Household income is evenly distributed between low, medium, and high, and region of residences percentages are reflective of the population.

1. Students are submitting more applications, but taking longer to press “submit”

On average, the high school seniors we surveyed plan to apply to eight colleges and universities. That number has been gradually increasing since 2015, when students submitted an average of six applications. This year, male students, students from lower- and higher-income households, and international students are among the students submitting more applications, on average.

Students are also taking more time to submit their applications, with 20% of students indicating they will wait until the last minute to apply. But what’s causing the delay in application submission? The high school seniors we surveyed say they are holding off on applying to give themselves as much time as possible to prepare their applications.

This need for additional time is fueled by reduced access to college counseling, no opportunity to get a first-hand look at campuses, canceled SAT and ACT test dates, and personal family upheaval. And more than their counterparts, underrepresented students, first-generation students, and students from low-income families are taking even longer to submit their applications due to the disproportionate impact of these circumstances. Distractions and uncertainty about the future are also delaying students’ applications.


of surveyed students have “visited” a campus virtually during the pandemic.

With fewer students physically visiting before applying, institutions need a virtual tour that can convey culture and tell their unique story.


Most common reasons for waiting to submit applications

  • 0%

    Desire to spend as much time as possible preparing applications

  • 0%

    Too hard to focus on my future

  • 0%

    Worried about what college will be like due to COVID-19

  • 0%

    Need advice from my high school counselor and it’s hard to connect

  • 0%

    Family situation is uncertain and I’m waiting to see what happens

  • 0%

    Waiting until due date

  • 0%

    Waiting to receive my test scores (ACT or SAT)


With students slow to apply, colleges have additional time to communicate and provide information that prompts action. Since we know students and parents are highly pragmatic, identify the most important pieces of information they need to apply. In general, students and parents want to know:

  • About available academic majors, internships, and practicum opportunities
  • If they will get a job at graduation
  • If you are affordable for their family
  • Why they should enroll at your institution over other schools

Extended application due dates (if possible) are a good idea to reduce stress. They also allow you more time to build a positive recruiting relationship.

2. Students are submitting FAFSA applications to schools where they have not yet applied

Although many students are planning to submit their applications at the last minute, 74% of students sent their FAFSA to a school where they have not yet applied. And in total, 90% of the students we surveyed have completed or plan to complete a FAFSA. These findings confirm what we know to be true: concerns about cost persist. FAFSA submission is a strong indicator of interest, and students are likely to apply to the schools where they submitted a FAFSA-even if they apply last minute.


of students sent their FAFSA to a school where they have not yet applied


If it’s not already your practice, import ISIR’s as received. And for any students perhaps not in your inquiry pool or who have not yet applied, reach out immediately. Let them know how pleased you are to learn of their interest and that you are happy to start a conversation about how to finance their education at your school. Place these student names in your communication flow for your “regular” messaging and encourage your admission counselors to prioritize personal contact with this cohort.

For any admitted students who have not yet completed a FAFSA-and it looks as though the family may require need-based financial aid-ensure your institution is answering families’ questions and concerns about the FAFSA proactively and clearly. High school counselors report students and parents have more questions about the FAFSA this year because, in many cases, their 2020 and current income is significantly different than their 2019 tax return information upon which their filing is based.

5 ways to create urgency around FAFSA submissions It’s not too late to create urgency around FAFSA submissions. Here are five recommendations to mitigate the risk of lower enrollment numbers in 2021.


Consider developing a series of short videos that will live in perpetuity on your website. These videos can answer questions such as?

  • How do I create an FSA ID?
  • What documents do I need to complete the FAFSA?
  • What are the most common errors parents and students make when filing their FAFSA?
  • What happens at your institution once the FAFSA is received (e.g., how will you evaluate the information, how do you package aid, when will they hear)?
  • How do I share any special circumstances or changes in income? 

3. Concerns about cost are heightened during the pandemic

Cost (or perceived cost) is a strong driver for where students choose to apply. The pandemic has created greater anxiety as families experience job loss, furloughs, and general financial uncertainty. More than half of the high school seniors we surveyed limited the number of institutions they applied to because of financial concerns. And 60% of students removed specific schools from their application set because they are too expensive.


of students removed specific schools from their application set because they are too expensive

Communications about affordability are always important, but that’s especially true this enrollment cycle. Share information about affordability and your university’s benefits with students and parents throughout the student’s high school career. And as always, include information about cost prominently and clearly on your financial aid webpage, with the understanding that most families will already know you average net cost via Google or other college search programs.

What parents of high school seniors say about cost during COVID-19 Learn how the COVID-19 pandemic is influencing families’ college planning, budgeting, and school selection.


Regardless of your stated cost of attendance and the true average net price paid, most families will think it is expensive and often beyond their ability or willingness to pay. Every time you share information about cost (including the offer of financial aid), include proof points that illustrate your institutional value proposition and why the investment is worthwhile. Make sure families know precisely what they are paying for and why your educational program and student opportunities make your school the best choice. 

4. COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting underrepresented students at every stage of the application process

We’re all struggling with the pandemic’s impacts, but the negative experiences and ramifications are (unsurprisingly) more pronounced for underrepresented students. Students of color, students from low-income families, and first-generation students are more likely to adjust their application plans due to the pandemic than their counterparts. For example, 43% of first-generation students modified the number of schools they are applying to due to the pandemic, compared to just 32% of non-first-generation students.

Underserved students were also less likely to have taken the SAT or ACT at all and were more likely to indicate they did not have access to take or retake a standardized test once the pandemic hit. And while 85% of all surveyed students applied to a test-optional school, underserved students more frequently applied to a school specifically because it is test-optional than their counterparts.


Learn the value, and importance, of recruitment marketing to help underserved students inquire, apply, and gain admission to colleges and universities in this infographic.


We saw the pandemic’s initial impact on these students last fall when a significant percentage of Pell-eligible students and students of color simply didn’t go to college at all. This is a tremendous loss of human potential for the nation, and a worry for institutions with a strong access mission who need these students to meet enrollment goals.


Develop new and engaging resources that address the significant loss of services and support that these students are experiencing. You can’t over communicate on this subject and employing multiple modalities and delivery mechanisms will broaden your appeal.  These families are not best served by lengthy webinars full of technical language, policies, and rules. Take a “we really want to help you, and one of the ways we can do so is to receive your FAFSA so we may make you a financial aid offer. Help me help you.” approach.

5. Students expressed concern about being successful in college

This is an anxious generation of students and experiencing virtual learning for an extended period has eroded some students’ confidence that they possess the knowledge and skills necessary for success in college. This is especially true of underrepresented students. The students of color, students from low-income families, and first-generation students we surveyed all indicated that the pandemic has increased concerns about their ability to succeed in college. Your team can assuage these concerns by developing online content that highlights how your institution supports students’ academic success.

Underrepresented students are more likely to express concern about doing well in school amid COVID-19
Underrepresented students were also more likely to express concern about doing well in college in light of the pandemic.

Don’t forget parents’ role in addressing student anxiety. Consider hosting virtual coffee sessions for parents to help them understand how your institution supports student success. And where possible, invite current parents to address prospective parents’ concerns during these sessions.


Ensure that you share targeted communications and that your website and marketing content answers common student and parent questions about student success such as:

  • How do I register for classes and what does academic advising look like?
  • Do you have an academic support or learning center? Who uses it and why?
  • What does health and safety look like on your campus and how do students access those services?
  • How do I access career services?

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