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The pandemic path to college

Becca Caudle, director of undergraduate admission at Benedictine College in Atchison, stands in the marble entryway of St. Benedict’s Hall on the college campus. Caudle said that this year’s incoming freshman class seems to have shown great resiliency during the pandemic. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven

This time last year, high school seniors were eagerly completing college applications, scheduling campus visits and even getting a jump-start on choosing dorm decor. Then COVID-19 hit. Last year’s juniors were watching closely.

While many students have acclimated to a virtual world, other high school and college counselors were behind the scenes reimagining their own workflow and processes. According to Bishop Miege, Roeland Park, counselor and head baseball coach Dan Meara, their work didn’t just involve flipping the switch on technology.

“Our counselors are needed and necessary for our students more than ever. The social/emotional needs of our students have always been a priority, but in a year of COVID-19, even more so,” Meara said.

“Students are stressed about the uncertainty and break in routine, so we’ve devoted a lot of time and resources to help our students cope with crisis in their own lives,” he continued.  “[That includes] meeting with them individually and in groups, creating videos and lessons to address concerns through school, along with supporting and educating our faculty to help meet the emotional needs of our students and staff alike.”

Bouncing back

As such, Meara said many Bishop Miege students haven’t made final decisions about the college they’ll attend and were awaiting the arrival of financial aid packages. In fact, he said, plenty of students are looking at options closer to home. He attributes that to the uncertainty of 2021 and the pressure to make the right decision, particularly when affordability is a consideration.

Just across town at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, counselors are working hard with the class of 2021 to ease anxiety and guide students through a new way of applying to college. Liz Majors, the school’s director of college placement, is not surprised by the strength of this class.

“The class of 2021 is a resilient group of students who are working within new parameters,” Major said. “The biggest changes for this class have been the move from required standardized testing to test-optional admissions policies, the inability to visit college campuses in person and learning to do their college search virtually.”

Liz Majors, the director of college placement at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, talks with Teresa Payne about college options. LEAVEN PHOTO BY KATHRYN WHITE

Majors characterizes this year’s process as “more individual” than previous years. The impact of COVID-19 is unique to each family’s circumstances. What counselors might recommend for one student may be different for another when considering standardized testing, application submission, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)  loan applications, college visits, athletics and more.

“Before [COVID-19], if you had this ACT score and this GPA, and your plan was to attend XYZ college, you should do this,” said Majors. “Now, families are having to do more individual research to determine where they align with how the colleges’ policies have changed and what the individual student has had access to throughout the pandemic.”

A new way

Many colleges across the country have implemented “test-optional” entrance criteria, which means they don’t require standardized SAT or ACT test scores. However, a good number of schools across the country were already headed in that direction before the pandemic, according to Becca Caudle, director of undergraduate admission at Benedictine College in Atchison.

Resiliency is among the chief characteristics college admission counselors are noticing, according to Caudle. In fact, many college essays reflect both the struggle and resiliency of the times.

“The big thing I’ve noticed about the incoming freshman class is that they are rather resilient. I’ve been so impressed, and they have been so thorough in their application process,” Caudle said. “Many of the essays have been about the real struggles they’ve faced and other ways they’ve been creative in their journey.”

In fact, some students who lost part-time jobs as well as opportunities for athletics and extracurricular activities got creative in connecting with coaches or even starting their own businesses, Caudle said.

Some counselors have seen students whose extracurricular activities were interrupted or canceled look to continue them in college, said Randoulph Castor, the Kansas admissions counselor for the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth. Castor said many students who were involved in theater in high school and had to stop because of the pandemic, for example, have expressed interest in participating in it in college.

Ups and downs

Despite the pandemic, both the University of Saint Mary and Benedictine College have seen an uptick in the number of virtual and in-person visits, as well as the largest incoming freshman class in each school’s history this past fall.  

But challenges remain — including the availability of federal financial assistance. Unfortunately, FAFSA bases a student’s need on income levels from the previous year. That means that FAFSA applications are evaluated based on the year before so many Americans lost their jobs.

Colleges are keenly aware of this problem and many, like the University of Saint Mary, have worked to find more financial support by boosting or adding scholarships and identifying more work match programs to academic majors. Benedictine College has always offered each of its students academic scholarships and continues to find more ways to financially support its students.

“I’ve had a few parents email me and say they lost their jobs due to COVID-19, so FAFSA doesn’t tell the whole story,” Castor said. “My response is [to tell the caller to] take care of family first and come talk to me to see what we can do.”

Flexibility is certainly another key characteristic to come out of the pandemic, said John Shultz, vice president for marketing and admissions at the University of Saint Mary. From navigating student financial aid to adapting to virtual engagement, students are taking it all in stride.

“We wondered how well the move to virtual would be received,” Shultz said. “Students are embracing the ups and downs and hiccups of technology.”

Still, while high-tech may be where it’s at in an age of a pandemic, Caudle offers one final tip to parents and students alike.

“I always tell students and parents don’t hesitate to call a college counselor and ask questions,” Caudle said. “Don’t just rely on the website. Talking to someone on the phone is the best way for a counselor to get to know you and your student during this time and assess your needs.”

About the author

Susan Fotovich McCabe

Susan Fotovich McCabe is a writer, editor and Kansas City native. As a writer, Susan has covered a wide array of topics, from health care to aviation and everything in between. Susan built a long freelance practice, where she contributed to local publications, such as The Kansas City Star, Kansas City Business, Lifestyle Magazine and Parenting Children with Special Needs. She worked for two Kansas City public relations agencies and a media publishing company. Susan and her husband, Bill, support all things Jayhawk and love spending time with their three children, son-in-law and granddaughter.

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