April vacation is a popular time for college visits but pandemic pushes admissions online

  • In this photo taken Wednesday April 6, 2016 students walk past the historic Thompson Hall at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. The water system serving the University is among more than two dozen in New Hampshire that have exceeded the federal lead standard at least once in the last three years. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 4/24/2020 11:14:48 AM
Modified: 4/24/2020 11:14:36 AM

Neil Shea, a Concord High School junior, planned to spend April vacation in California, driving from San Diego to San Francisco to visit colleges.

He hoped to get a sense of Golden State schools and narrow down the list of universities he would apply to in the fall. 

Instead, Shea will be spending next week at his home in Concord, doing what he’s done since New Hampshire shut down in mid-March: not much of anything. 

“The Coronavirus has blown up my college timeline into a bunch of pieces that I am stressfully trying to put back together,” said Shea, 16. 

April vacation week — held April 27 to May 1 for most schools — is when many high school juniors start their college search in earnest by visiting schools. It’s also when accepted seniors make a final visit before deciding where to enroll. That’s not possible with the pandemic, so schools and students are adjusting, trying to replicate the campus visit through virtual tours and video question and answer sessions. 

They’re finding that facts and figures about academic programs can easily be listed online, but it’s hard to capture the feel of campus through a computer screen.

“There are limits to the degree to which a virtual program can replicate the experience of visiting our community in person,” said Paul Sunde, director of admissions at Dartmouth College in Hanover. Normally, Dartmouth would have about 1,000 accepted and prospective students visit during April vacation week. This week, there will be no visits. Instead, prospective students can do online tours, attend virtual information sessions, or email with current students. Other New Hampshire colleges and universities have similar programs in place. 

Large and well-known schools like Dartmouth and the University of New Hampshire have many students who are set on attending even before a campus visit. Smaller schools, like Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, face the additional challenge of trying to engage students who might not already be familiar with the institution. Virtual tours can give students a glimpse of campus and facilities, but many students want more than that. 

“[Virtual tours] are not as effective in engaging students in a way that imparts a sense of who we are, what our institutional values and strengths are, and what students value in their Franklin Pierce experience,” said Linda Quimby, vice president of enrollment and university communications at Franklin Pierce. 

To try to personalize student engagement, the university has filmed videos with staff, students and alumni. It also organized weekly webinars: “Discovery Days” every Tuesday target high school juniors and seniors who want to learn more about Franklin Pierce, while accepted student days every Thursday answer questions from students who can enroll in the fall. 

“Even so, we understand that these virtual or remote experiences, while important and helpful, do not engage all of the senses in the way that a campus visit does,” Quimby said. 

Despite that, colleges report that students are taking advantage of virtual visits. 

“We have been encouraged by the number of participants in the virtual sessions,” said Erika Mantz, spokesperson for the University of New Hampshire, where prospective students can live chat with the admissions team. 

Leah Cole, a high school senior from Williamstown, Vermont, will enroll at Colby Sawyer College in New London in the fall. After she was accepted, she attended a large virtual meeting with the dean of the nursing program, then set up a one-on-one video meeting with an admissions counselor. 

“We just chatted and got to know each other, which was really helpful,” said Cole, 17. 

Colby Sawyer, which generally has a freshman class of 250-300 students, has had 40 students sign up for one-on-one meetings, said Michael Clark, director of enrollment and marketing.

“We try to give students that face-to-face experience that they would have had in person,” he said. “That’s a huge part of how a student know’s we’re the right fit, so we’re doing our absolute best to replace that.”

Normally, incoming freshmen need to commit to Colby Sawyer by May 1, but the college has extended the deadline until June 1. Still, Clark sees students eager to solidify their plans. 

“Students are reaching out and engaging, staying on their timeline for making a decision,” he said. 

Neil Shea plans to attend virtual tours for the colleges that he’s interested in, but he’s not sure how these will compare to strolling around campus and having impromptu conversations with students. 

“Visiting schools is really important for me because I would like to go to a different part of the country like the south or west coast. Without going there it's really hard to determine if I would be happy there or not, let alone narrow down which schools in a region I like the best,” he said. 

With a year to go until he needs to commit to a school, he’s still hoping to visit campuses, but also being realistic about how his college selection process will be shaped by the coronavirus. 

“One positive I can see in this is that it is helping my ability to adjust quickly,” Shea said. 


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