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COVID-19 Alters College Admissions

Photo - Students walking on UCLA college campus

Admissions may look different for students entering college in fall 2021. Social distancing to protect communities during the COVID-19 outbreak will impact where students attend classes and where they will live—and recent policy updates around standardized testing and GPA requirements will impact how colleges determine eligibility and placement in courses. But even as admissions become more flexible, some students still struggle to get on the path to college.

California’s public universities are the primary destination of the state’s high school graduates and community college transfers headed to a four-year college. In 2017–18, nearly 200,000 California high school graduates applied to the University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU), and 84,000 were enrolled.

figure - UC and CSU Are the Primary Destinations for High School Graduates

For students applying for admission to colleges in fall 2021, eligibility requirements and application processes are changing. Most standardized tests used for admission—such as SAT and ACT—and for placement purposes, such as the Smarter Balanced Assessment, are either postponed or cancelled.

In light of these cancellations, UC and CSU temporarily suspended testing requirements for fall 2021 applicants, meaning students do not need to include a test score on their application. In addition, UC and CSU systems are temporarily accepting pass/fail in lieu of a letter grade for courses completed in winter, spring, and summer 2020, as more K–12 districts and community colleges choose not to assign letter grades while students adjust to distance learning during the pandemic.

These adjustments are meant to ease anxiety over college admissions in a time of crisis, and there is some evidence that eliminating high stakes standardized tests could lead to more underrepresented students being placed in college-level courses and being eligible for college.

However, when high schools and community colleges lack sufficient resources, even with flexible grading in place, remote education may fail disadvantaged students. More than half of K–12 students from low-income households do not have broadband access at home. Notably, PPIC research found that online courses at community colleges exacerbated achievement gaps.

During their junior and senior years, high school students are more likely to fall off the college pathway, and disadvantaged students are even more likely to do so. And until recently, disadvantaged students were also more vulnerable to being diverted away from community college courses necessary for transfer admissions.

All students must cope with the changing college application process. But first-generation college applicants come from families who are new to the process; those with less internet/technology access may also be less familiar with how to apply. These students may see less support in the college application process than they would if they were still in school.

Now, more than ever, targeted outreach efforts and collaborations between K–12 and higher education will be critical to ensuring equitable access to a college education and economic mobility.

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