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College Applications Down As Recruitment Process Goes Virtual

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend some time talking about the college admissions process, which, if you are a part of it, you know was already nerve-wracking for everybody involved. But amid the pandemic and efforts to control it, things are even more stressful. Just about all aspects of the process have been thrown into disarray, from standardized testing to campus visits and athletic recruitment. And of course, all this is happening amid all the other chaos this year where students and families may be dealing with illness, death or long-term unemployment.

We wanted to get a better sense of what prospective college students are up against and what could help, so we've called three people with deep knowledge on these issues. We don't expect them to have all the answers, but we do hope they can help us understand it better.

Jenny Rickard is the president and CEO of the Common Application. That's a nonprofit that aims to improve access to higher education by streamlining the application process. Jenny, thanks so much for joining us.

JENNY RICKARD: Thank you, Michel. Happy to be here.

MARTIN: Beth Arey is the college and career coordinator at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Ill. That's just outside of Chicago. Beth Arey, welcome to you as well. Thank you for joining us.

BETH AREY: Thank you.

MARTIN: And joining us once again is Ellen Zavian. She's a lawyer and former sports agent. She has represented a number of athletes, including in the NFL. She's the former commissioner of the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference. That's a Division II athletic conference. Welcome back to you. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

ELLEN ZAVIAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Jenny, I'm going to start with you. According to data from the Common Application - now, some 900 colleges and universities use this - applications are down 8% overall from last year. And I do want to mention that the application cycle is ongoing, so the data isn't final. But it does suggest that things are different this year or different from last year. And I just wanted to ask, like, what are people telling you about why? I mean, since you engage with both applicants and colleges, do you have a sense of why?

RICKARD: Absolutely. Going back to March, when you think about the pandemic really hitting at that moment, that's not only the time that colleges are sending out their admission decisions for the that next fall, it's also the time that they're recruiting, you know, the next cycle of students. That's when they really begin in earnest. And when you think about the systems that we have in place that are very ingrained in this process, there weren't going to be spring college fairs for the juniors in high school. There weren't going to be visits from colleges to the high schools. Standardized tests were canceled. And that's a big source of names for colleges to put into their recruitment databases to be able to recruit students. So you have sort of that confluence of students not being able to research colleges and then colleges not being able to get the names of students to connect with them throughout the process.

You also have, I think, one of the things that often gets lost when we think about all the technology in the college admissions process. So much of it is about relationships, and it's about organic conversations that students have with one another about the college process, what they have with their school counselors, with teachers and with others. And going into a virtual environment, you know, just makes that all the more challenging to have that - those kinds of relationships that would lead to conversations about going to college and what students need to do.

MARTIN: Let's talk to Beth about more of those things. Beth, you work at a large, diverse, you know, public high school. So you have experience with, you know, all different kinds of students. As I understand it, you know, Evanston is - it's about - it's kind of one of those 50-50 schools. It's about half white and half students of color. You've got, like, 40% of the students are free and reduced lunch eligible. But most of the kids in your school do go to college. So tell me some of the things that they're telling you or that at least you've observed.

AREY: Yeah. So it's been interesting. What I'm noting this year is that because of not being in the building, like has been said, that relationship piece is missing, particularly with our students of color. It's a social-cultural need that our students have to relate to individuals to be able to get information and feel comfortable and know that they're on the right path. And without being in the building, that's really been a detriment to our students.

I can say that from the appointments that I've had this fall as students are doing essays and applications, the majority of my students have been white females, and that has been pretty typical data points from the 12 years I've been at Evanston. And those are students who reach out and make appointments on their own. So we're really having to do some deep dives into surveying students and what their needs are and how to get them back on track because at this point, we have about 50% - just over 50% of our students of color have not submitted one application yet and - from the class. And that's pretty disheartening to me, as we know that that would have been higher if we were in person.

MARTIN: And why do you think that is, though? I mean, to go from, you know, three-quarters of the students do go to college, the kids at the school must have a sense that there's - that's a culture of college-going at your school. So why do you think it is that absent that kind of face-to-face interaction, that kids - what? Are they afraid that they aren't going to make it? Are they afraid that it's just not going to work out for them? Is it they need that kind of - you know, why do you think that is? And it's not just that - I just want to point out, it's not just the students of color that you're telling me. It's also the boys.

AREY: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: OK.

AREY: Evanston is still a school where we struggle with our achievement gap and what's happening with that. So we're always trying to target our students of color to say, hey, you have this opportunity. Let's do the financial aid components. Let's do all of that, which also is missing its face-to-face time - doing the FAFSA and other documents that could be submitted for aid. So I think there's a lot of this, like, lacking the awareness, one, that we are not here to help them because, like was said, we weren't there in the spring when they were juniors. And so that time in the junior year when they would have started, like, trickling into our space and seeing our faces and we would have been doing presentations in person and things like that, they've missed out on that as juniors. And now as seniors, it was like they didn't know who to turn to necessarily.

MARTIN: And - so Ellen Zavian, you've got a lot of knowledge about how athletic recruitment works at the collegiate level. So what have you seen? What's the biggest change that you've seen when it comes to athletic recruitment?

ZAVIAN: Well, I would play off the word relationships - relationships between the coaches, the coaches and the prospective athletes, the coaches and the seniors that may come back an extra year, which has been permitted under NCAA rules, and just the impact on the budgets alone. I mean, when you look at the financial side of, you know, athletic recruiting, the coaches don't know what their recruiting budget even looks like. So it's really about digital recruiting and digital profiling. Digital recruiting - when we talk about what kind of Zoom calls, what kind of - campus meetings where you're in one car and the coaches in the - another car communicating to you, explaining to you what the campus has to offer.

How you're building your digital profile as an athlete, you're really looking at cleaning up your profile online because now that carries greater weight. And then you've got high school coaches or club coaches that are carrying greater weight in that relationship description. So college coaches are calling their high school coaches to say, what kind of person is this? Can they have a good temperament and fit into what we have on the field or in the court?

MARTIN: Well, what about, also, the fact that some of these seasons were canceled? I mean, like, fall sports in a lot of states was canceled. They - kids were allowed to maybe drill - maybe. But a lot of, you know, athletic competition was just canceled. So what are you seeing? Are you seeing kids from one part of the country maybe - are people moving to other states or staying with relatives in other states where sports is in play? Or - what do you see?

ZAVIAN: I'm not seeing that, but I do see where the junior colleges and the local colleges that the athlete already has a relationship with and they've already met the coaches, that really plays a role. So you might see more localization of recruiting. So it will have a ripple effect, I believe, for the next five to six years on the quality and the right fit. And you may see more transfers than you've ever seen because the initial fit was due to the pandemic circumstances, and now the transfer rules may change to allow transfers to happen without having to sit out a year.

MARTIN: So Jenny Rickard, what about you? What do you - you know, Ellen had an interesting point here. She was saying she thinks there's going to be a ripple effect of this five and six years down the line when it comes to athletic recruitment. Do you have a concern about the long-term ramifications of this?

RICKARD: I really do. I have a long-term concern for the students who are being impacted as well as our society. We're only down 2% in applicants - individual applicants now. And the National Student Clearinghouse just recently released data that low-income high school graduates as first-year students in college are down 29%, which has just - is devastating for those students in terms of what they'll be able to do in their futures and us having an educated workforce. Particularly, the pandemic has shined a light on the fact that those with an education have been able to keep their jobs at a higher rate and be able to work from home, you know, at a higher rate than others. And so that's my long-term concern, is the impact that this is having on individual students that will ultimately impact our society.

MARTIN: Given all the uncertainty that remains, what's one piece of advice that each of you can offer for students and parents who are in the process or who you would want to be in the process? Jenny, do you want to start?

RICKARD: Eighty-five percent of Common App college and university members are now test-optional or test-free. That compares to more than 50% last year who required testing. So knowing that they're truly test-optional and you don't have to worry if you haven't been able to get a standardized test and the colleges definitely want to hear from you. Don't be intimidated by that.

MARTIN: Beth Arey.

AREY: The biggest thing that I always like to share as a counselor is for families to use their resources within schools and that, in this virtual world, you can still reach out to individuals for help in having conversations regarding your plans, what that looks like, what your options are, et cetera. And I think that's something we're losing without the in-person component.

MARTIN: And Ellen Zavian.

ZAVIAN: Yes, I think that scholarships have not gone down, so the scholarships are out there. And it's really yours for the taking. So I look forward to seeing the student athletes in particular utilize what they've learned on the field and make a go at it.

MARTIN: That's Ellen Zavian. She's a former NFL agent. She now teaches law at George Washington University. Thank you so much for joining us.

ZAVIAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: We also heard from Beth Arey. She's a college and career coordinator at Evanston Township High School. Beth Arey, thank you so much for joining us.

AREY: Thank you.

MARTIN: And Jenny Rickard is president and CEO of the Common Application. Jenny Rickard, thank you so much for joining us as well.

RICKARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.