Many Oklahoma seniors have yet to take an admissions test or apply for college as they begin their final semester in high school.
“I know it has everything to do with the pandemic,” said Christopher Lynch, vice president for enrollment and student success at the University of Central Oklahoma.
COVID-19 put students out of the classroom and parents out of work. It severely limited access to the ACT college admissions test and gutted the traditional college campus experience.
As of mid-December, applications to UCO from first-time freshmen were down by 709 students or 35% from the same point in December 2019.
Lynch said some students who have not taken the ACT yet are considering taking a gap year before applying for college.
“We’re hearing that from students and we’re hearing that from high school counselors,” he said.
Although many colleges have waived the test requirement for admission, students rely on good scores to earn scholarships. Financial aid is especially important in a pandemic economy.
“Moms and dads are stressed out over money, wondering how to cover the basics. They can’t help fund their child’s education,” Lynch said. “We’re hearing this from multiple families.”
When students talk about a gap year in 2021, they aren’t talking about “backpacking in Europe,” he said. “It’s because of real concerns.”
Lynch said postponing college is “scary.” Students who opt to work for one year often end up delaying enrollment for much longer, severely limiting their lifetime earnings and ability to retire, he said.
Inside Higher Ed looked at the issue in a May article that noted students who delay enrollment are 64% less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree and 18% less likely to complete any college credential.
Questions About Campus Life in 2021
Uncertainty about how courses will be delivered and what the college experience will be like next fall also is causing some students to delay enrollment.
“Students are asking ‘Am I going to be able to do XYZ?’” Lynch said.
Prospective students continue to ask those questions at Oklahoma State University too, but not as many as did last spring, said Benjamin Hagan, assistant director of undergraduate admissions.
“I do believe how schools are handling the impact of COVID on their campuses is part of what families are considering,” Hagan said.
College officials cannot guarantee what campus life will be like next fall, but say they are optimistic in-person classes will be the norm and student activities will revive.
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Students lost the opportunity to take the ACT test at school for free when COVID-19 caused school closures last spring. Other states are providing a makeup test, but not Oklahoma.
Hearing what campus life is like this year and not knowing what it will be like next fall is causing some seniors to change their plans, said Jocelyn Trager, a counselor at Classen School of Advanced Studies at Northeast.
Some students who wanted to attend a university and live on campus are choosing instead to live at home and go to a community college their first year, Trager said.
“If you’re not going to be able to really participate in the college experience, why pay for it?” she said.
Oklahoma City Public Schools have had nearly all-virtual instruction this school year, and that “is just not the ideal learning environment for a lot of students,” Trager said. They want to know they will get face-to-face instruction at college.
ACT, FAFSA Trending Behind
The loss of spring and summer ACT testing opportunities delayed the college process for many seniors.
“For thousands of students the ACT marks the start of their college search process and interacting with colleges,” said Hagan, who also chairs the Oklahoma ACT Council. “This group is trending far behind.”
Oklahoma normally provides a free test during school hours to all public-school juniors each spring, but COVID-19 closed schools in March and the state-sponsored test never happened. The pandemic also caused the cancellation of many testing opportunities ACT Inc. had scheduled on Saturdays.
Nationally, about two-thirds as many 2021 seniors had taken the ACT by the end of December compared to last year’s class, but in Oklahoma it was just a little more than one-third, according to the Oklahoma ACT Council.
Kristy Hernandez, director of student services at Moore Public Schools, said only 43% of the district’s 1,761 seniors had taken the ACT through December despite counselors at the three Moore high schools urging students to enroll for one of the extra testing dates ACT added to the fall calendar.
“Engaging late in the college application process will have significant consequences for some students because they also are late to the financial aid process,” Hagan said. “The later students engage, the later they apply and get admitted, the less financial aid is available to them.”
One example is the Oklahoma Tuition Aid Grant for the state’s residents with the lowest incomes. It is awarded to eligible students on a first-come, first-served basis, using the date they submit what is known as the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The grant website warns students to submit their FAFSA as soon as possible after Oct. 1 because more eligible applications are received each year than can be funded.
Submitting the FAFSA is key to receiving any financial aid from the state and from colleges and universities.
The U.S. Department of Education reports FAFSA submissions through Dec. 4 were down 14% nationally from one year ago. Only one in five Oklahoma seniors had filed the application. That’s down 2,713 students or nearly 23% from last year.
Delays Have Consequences
Sarah Riley, a senior at Westmoore High School, filed her FAFSA in December but has not taken the ACT yet.
“Last spring, that’s what I was prepping for and I never got to do it,” Riley said. It slipped under the radar as she focused on schoolwork and concurrent classes at Oklahoma City Community College. “With this pandemic there’s just so much to worry about.”
Riley has enrolled to take the ACT on Feb. 8. She applied to the University of Oklahoma in November without a score rather than wait any longer. Like many colleges and universities OU is waiving the usual requirement for an ACT or SAT score.
“Since some people do have it, I feel like I’m set a little farther back,” Riley said.
And without an ACT score she was ineligible to apply for some scholarships at OU and for admission to some of her top-choice colleges that still require it.
Enid High School senior Avrielle LeBaron struggled to take the ACT when summer and September tests in Enid were canceled because of a surge in COVID-19 cases. She finally succeeded in late October and recently got her results.
“I got a 22 composite score, which wasn’t exactly what I was going for but it’s not bad,” LeBaron said.
It will have to do because time is running out to apply to the three colleges in Minnesota she hopes will accept her. She cannot wait on a retest to improve her score.
“I’m waiting on the FAFSA and some teacher recommendations before I can send off my applications,” she said last month.
If students have a test score OSU must “take it into consideration,” Hagan said. “It can affect their admission status and scholarship chances.”
He said he is working with one such student from Stillwater who is bright, motivated and has a perfect grade-point average. Her only ACT score is from a practice test she took as a sophomore.
“She is a student who likely would have gotten better and better scores over a few years simply because she has done so well in the classroom, but now what we have on file for her doesn’t represent her accomplishments and potential,” Hagan said.
What Lies Ahead?
Taking the test more than once can improve a student’s score significantly, said Christy McCreary, executive director of assessments at the State Department of Education. And for many students the tests are free.
ACT waives the testing fee for students from low-income families and those who are homeless or in foster care, but only 67% of eligible 2020 graduates used the waiver, McCreary said.
“We encourage as many students as possible to take advantage of the fee waivers when so many families are facing financial hardships,” she said.
There is no deadline, so seniors who have decided to postpone college can test throughout this year and enroll as freshmen for fall 2022 with the score and scholarship opportunities they want, Lynch said.
McCreary said the Department of Education intends to test all juniors this spring. Officials are working with school districts to provide flexibility as the pandemic continues, she said.
The number of possible testing days was increased from six to 12 and spread out across April, so even students in quarantine for 14 days will have an opportunity to test.
Some districts are planning virtual instruction days for freshmen, sophomores and seniors so all juniors can come to school for the ACT test and be spread out across the building, she said.
Hernandez from Moore Public School said she hopes nothing disrupts spring ACT testing again this year.
“They test best their junior year when the emphasis is on it,” she said.
Kathryn McNutt is an Oklahoma-born journalist and former newspaper reporter and editor. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ksmcnutt.
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