Impact of Coronavirus Pandemic on Incoming High School Seniors

From the first cases of COVID-19 emerging in early February 2020 to the wave of school closings across the country in mid-March, the effects of the pandemic have been felt across the United States. Within a matter of weeks, schools closed and instruction moved into other formats.

The rapid shift to online instruction required adaptation of instruction, and students had to adjust to a new way of learning. Students graduating amid these events also had to reconsider their plans for after high school.


Across demographic groups, incoming seniors (class of 2021) have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and some have altered their college plans accordingly. Most seniors are planning to attend the same type of institution they were planning on before the pandemic, but about half are planning on a different institution, one closer to home, or one with lower tuition.

Notwithstanding the dramatic changes that occurred in education this past spring, they are confident about their plans. However, they are concerned about how their academic preparation, including preparing for admissions tests like the ACT or SAT, has been affected by the pandemic. First generation students and students in the lowest family income bracket (less than $36k) are feeling the least motivated to prepare for the ACT or SAT.

Colleges and universities made several changes in the previous admission cycle to support students and should consider extending those measures to the class of 2021. These adaptations included allowing students to appeal financial aid decisions following changes to their family’s financial situation and pushing acceptance deadlines to June 1. Other potential adaptations could include providing online campus tours for students who cannot attend in person, explaining the procedures students would need to complete to take a gap year, and being transparent about how alternative grades (ex. pass/fail) will be treated in the admissions process. These adaptations will only be helpful to students, parents, and counselors if they are easy to locate on universities’ websites.

Because students are more open to attending a less expensive college, one closer to home, or even living with family, this could be an opportunity for colleges and universities to highlight the attractive features of their schools to students in their immediate vicinity. Specifically, they could use their websites to emphasize quality programs available at a reasonable price, financial aid opportunities, and clearly explain how they are responding to the pandemic.