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Why COVID-19 has made college application season even more stressful this year

Some students in Colorado are in survival mode, making planning for the future difficult, higher ed experts said

Naomi Barnes, 17, a senior at Manuel High School, poses for a portrait at her home in Aurora on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.
Naomi Barnes, 17, a senior at Manuel High School, poses for a portrait at her home in Aurora on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.

On top of juggling sports, student government, charity work, a YouTube channel, her senior year course load and dual enrollment college classes during a tumultuous pandemic year, 17-year-old Naomi Barnes is the only member of her family currently employed.

During breaks at her part-time UPS job, the Manual High School senior filled out college applications, refusing to let her lifelong dreams of attending a historically Black college or university fade despite the onslaught of stressors the COVID-19 pandemic presented.

“My community — we are just struggling to survive to be honest,” Barnes said. “Struggling to survive is something I don’t want to have to keep doing. I want to be able to set up my family and their families and make sure my kids and their kids don’t struggle, and I can do that by going to college.”

College application season can be stressful in a normal year. In 2020 as the coronavirus has annihilated normalcy in most aspects of life including higher education, experts worry about the consequences of the newfound uncertainties of a traditional college life and the added pressures of pandemic life making an already taxing application process that much harder.

Compared to last year, nearly 22% fewer high school seniors who graduated in 2020 nationally went to college in the fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. In Colorado, state higher education experts are concerned as preliminary data shows declining enrollment among the class of 2021, particularly among first-generation college students, students of color and those applying to community college, said Carl Einhaus, senior director of student success and academic affairs at the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

“This is a very significant concern,” Einhaus said. “These are all student populations we have been working hard to make sure higher education is accessible to.”

Almost 89% of top jobs in the state require some form of credential past high school, according to a new report from the state higher education department.

Cassandra Willis, a 17-year-old from Alamosa, has her eyes set on one of those top jobs.

“I’ve always been that nerd who gets straight A’s, and I’ve always wanted to make a name for myself and show people that a kid from a small town can go to a big college and have a great career,” Willis said. “But this year is just awkward trying to figure out all the college application stuff when everything is different.”

Willis said she and a friend made a pact to apply to colleges together so they could hold each other accountable to getting the work done and be supportive when acceptance or rejection letters arrived.

The high school senior applied to most Colorado higher education institutions and is especially interested in Regis University’s pharmacy program. 

Willis said many of her peers, even those who may have considered college in the past, are burned out from the difficult pandemic year.

“This year has taken a toll on everyone because when I talk to my classmates about college or somebody brings it up in class, a lot of them are not very not motivated to apply,” Willis said.

Renae Bellew, senior program director with the Denver Scholarship Foundation, which works toward enrolling and graduating Denver Public Schools students into postsecondary institutions, said students this year are in survival mode.

“Planning for the future right now is not the priority for some students,” Bellew said. “There’s food insecurity, housing insecurity, mental health concerns that we’re addressing with students, so we have to be sensitive to the realities of what our students are experiencing and adjusting the support we provide.”

Bellew said Denver Scholarship Foundation employees are used to tracking down students in schools — even waiting outside their classrooms to catch them in the hallway — to make sure they have the resources they need when applying to colleges.

Due to COVID-19 and the massive shift to remote learning, Bellew said those critical face-to-face interactions have been replaced with asking students to hold up financial aid forms to laptop cameras or trying to talk through confusing paperwork over the phone.

Bellew’s department has seen a rise in students considering a gap year in the hopes they could have a more traditional post-pandemic college experience, pondering part-time enrollment and looking at colleges closer to home.

Willis has concentrated her college search mainly to Colorado due to the pandemic.

“If I go to school out-of-state and am so far away from my family, what if our school gets shut down and then I don’t really have anywhere to go and I’d have to book a flight and quarantine and all that sounds like a lot,” Willis said. “I’m nervous about that. I want to stay in Colorado or close to it.”

Barnes, on the other hand, is anxious her aspiration to attend college out-of-state may be in jeopardy due to the pandemic.

The Manual High School student has applied to eight HBCUs, all outside Colorado, and intends to study business management and become an entrepreneur.

“My main thing was getting out of state, so if I wasn’t able to do that, that’s the part that scares me,” Barnes said.

Naomi Barnes, 17, a senior at Manual High School, poses for a portrait at her home in Aurora on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.

From a college admissions standpoint, Karla Hardesty, executive director for enrollment management at Adams State University, said higher education institutions need to innovate to reach students in this trying year.

Normally, Adams State University — a smaller institution in the San Luis Valley — is able to make in-person connections and introduce the school to potential students at college fairs and inside high school classrooms, but pandemic restrictions threw a wrench into many of those plans.

Virtual is always an option, but Hardesty said the institution is aware of Zoom fatigue. For alternative recruiting, Hardesty said Adams State has begun texting campaigns, social media outreach on platforms like Tik Tok and connecting with parents and families, too.

Applications at Adams State are down compared to last year, Hardesty said, but admission numbers are on the rise as the university is able to admit students faster because the state made SAT and ACT scores optional this year due to pandemic complications.

“If a student had challenges this year academically, we’re certainly going to take those circumstances of this year into consideration,” Hardesty said.

Clark Brigger, executive director of admissions at the University of Colorado Boulder, echoed Hardesty’s sentiments.

Applications to Colorado’s flagship university are actually 26% ahead of last year, but Brigger said he understands this is a difficult time for many families.

“We certainly understand that some students won’t excel in a remote learning environment and some transcripts have pass/fail grades on them, and we have to look past that passing grade to previous grades and look at sequence of courses and extrapolate,” Brigger said. “We’ll be focusing on the entire academic record and paying special attention to essays, letters of recommendation and any COVID-related statements.”

If a student or family had a recent change in financial situation due to the pandemic — or for any reason — Brigger and Hardesty urged them to call the institution’s financial aid department and talk it through.

“There is money available and we’re certainly very understanding,” Brigger said. “There are compassionate people that work with them in this process because the world is absolutely changing around everybody right now.”

Update 11 a.m. Dec. 14, 2020 This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Manual High School in the photo captions.