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Nervous Michigan colleges to high school seniors: Call me, maybe

Forty Michigan public and private colleges made a joint appeal to high school students and their families Wednesday, trying to calm nerves over how the coronavirus pandemic could impact college admissions.

The letter, which includes the names, phone numbers and personal emails of admissions representatives from 25 private colleges and universities and the state’s 15 public universities, is also a not-so-subtle acknowledgement of jitters among campus officials, who worry students may delay enrollment until after a vaccine is developed.

“We’ve heard from the K-12 community that there’s a lot of concern that somehow this [pandemic] is going to not only screw up incoming freshmen, but juniors applying for college next year,” said Robert LeFevre, president of the Michigan Independent Colleges & Universities association. “What we’re saying is, ‘Take deep breaths. We’re all in the same boat. We’re going to be as flexible as possible.’”

The joint statement, which you can read here, says colleges “are taking steps to meet the needs of high school seniors as they prepare to enter college in the fall, despite the extraordinary circumstances of COVID-19 and its impact on students and families.”

The statement assures families that “all colleges and universities are still open and will be open this fall,” while stopping short of saying whether on-campus, in-person classrooms will be open.

As Bridge has reported, schools are looking at various scenarios for the fall semester, ranging from a traditional return to school, to a continuation of online-only classes, to hybrid models.

The statement said the format of the fall semester spent on campuses across Michigan “are still being worked on,” and that “we look forward to returning to normal, in-person classes as quickly as is safely possible.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered Michigan’s public and private K-12 schools to close their classrooms and switch to online learning March 16 to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The original three-week closure was later extended to the remainder of the current school year.

The closure raised unsettling questions for college-bound seniors, who weren’t initially sure whether they would be allowed to graduate from high school this spring, or whether classes converted to pass-fail would impact their transcripts for college. Juniors normally take the SAT (a test used for college admissions) in March, but the test was canceled, raising concerns students wouldn’t have test scores for college applications.

Since the initial closure order, Whitmer has made it clear that seniors who were on pace to graduate before the shutdown will get their diplomas, and the SAT will be offered in the fall for current juniors.

LeFevre said Michigan’s private schools dropped admissions requirements for the SAT or ACT for the fall because of disruptions caused by the pandemic.

“We want to provide assurance that we’re not going to hold the pandemic against any student because of challenges about education delivery,” said Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of Public Universities, which represents the state’s 15 public universities. “And second, we’re providing a specific point of contact for 40 colleges, which is very helpful.”

The statement, which will be distributed through social media and state education groups, reminds families that most colleges and universities are still accepting applications for fall enrollment.

College officials who spoke with Bridge said they aren’t sure how the pandemic will affect enrollment. Applications and student acceptances for enrollment are up at the state’s private colleges, LeFevre said. Michigan State University President Samuel Stanley said in a virtual town hall Monday that enrollment acceptances for incoming, in-state freshmen were up 14 percent over last year.

“We feel good about the deposits we’re seeing, but right now they’re just deposits and students could change their mind,” Stanley said.

John Beaghan, vice president for finance and administration at Oakland University, said he’s concerned some incoming freshmen could decide to take a gap year, waiting to move into a dorm until after a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, which public health experts have said could take a year to 18 months.

And if colleges decide it isn’t safe for students to return to campus and opt to continue online classes for the fall semester, some students may opt out, Beaghan said.

Craig Thiel, senior research associate at Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonpartisan public affairs research organization, is well-versed in the economics of higher education, but also has a personal stake in fall enrollment. Thiel has a high school senior son headed to Michigan State University, who may change his plans if the campus remains shuttered in the fall. “He didn’t sign up to go to MSU to take classes online,” Thiel said.

The direct contact information for admissions officials at 40 Michigan colleges is meant to begin to address concerns like that, said LeFevre.

“We’re going to make this work,” he said. “We don’t want to add another layer of uncertainty to an uncertain time.”

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