“No one knows what to say. We don’t even know if we’ll be open in the fall,” says the Director of International Admissions, Ken Dunbar, at Pennsylvania’s Widener University on the effects of coronavirus on university admissions. In this special Covid-19 Q&A, Ken and I discuss how the pandemic affects yield season, test score requirements, current students on campus, financial stability for applicants and universities, and admissions rates. Ken, a Skidmore College alum, has worked in college admissions for 20 years, including at his alma mater as an admissions director.
Ken, thanks so much for your time today. Can you tell us what is it like on campus right now?
Things have been changing hour by hour, but today, we got the mandate that we can’t be on campus at all. We had obviously canceled big events like Accepted Student Days. We were going to do those online with faculty and student panels, just no one in the audience. We were going to livestream them. But then the students were told to leave campus and we were told we can’t even be on campus. So we’ve had to kind of reinvent the wheel every day here. Campus is completely shut down now.
What type of challenge does that bring your role in particular?
For me, as the international admissions director, in some way, I always work remotely. A lot of my students don’t come to the campus events. A lot of my students rely on Zoom and Skype that now everyone’s using. I guess for me, it’s probably a little bit easier.
In the admissions sphere, among professionals, who has been hardest hit by the coronavirus?
With other counselors who work domestically, just the world of admission has changed so much. Accepted Student Days are one of the biggest days of the year for any campus, and those are now canceled, because you can’t have anyone in groups. It’s nerve racking, because within the season of admission, it’s a yield season. The applications have been reviewed, and the students know that they’re admitted. And now we’re trying to get them to deposit. No one knows what to say. We don’t even know if we’ll be open in the fall.
How have accepted students responded? Most admissions officers recommend not sending in a deposit until the student has visited campus. But campus visits have been cancelled across the board.
Yeah, you can’t do that. A lot of kids who didn’t make the Accepted Students Day would still come for a tour. I think the advice is you can’t deposit at a school until you visit. Obviously, for international students, that’s not 100% true, but for domestic students, most have that mindset.
With Accepted Students Day being such an effective way of inspiring students to enroll, how are you moving forward without it?
Luckily, we have a virtual tour. We have a nice cloud on our website, and I think a lot of universities do. And we also have a pretty cool digital view book, but it’s customized. You type in your interests and what you’re looking for in a college experience, and you get your own personalized view book. We already have things like that in place. They are going to probably become more important.
You talked about being unsure if you’ll be open in the fall. How does that affect your planning?
We’re still operating under the impression that we’ll start the semester in August. But everyone knows there’s an outside chance that we might not even start like the fall semester. No one knows how long this is gonna go on for. So we’re operating as normal — even though we’re not on campus — under the impression that we’ll have a freshman class in August. But families are reluctant to send the deposit in because it’s non-refundable.
That’s a tough pickle. Are you making any accommodations for families who are hesitant to confirm their spots because of these travel bans or cancelled group activities?
There’s a big movement in the U.S. right now to move the deposit deadline from May 1 to June 1. We have joined that movement. Typically the deposit is like a couple hundred dollars. It’s not a lot of money when you’re talking about a tuition bill of $60,000. The deposit of $400 that we have is not a lot of money, but it is non-refundable. We might change that policy. We might give some deposits back because kids might not be able to be here or they families are reluctant to have their kids be away from home.
How has the virus created new obstacles for you in admissions now?
I think there are four different ways that the coronavirus affects admission. The most immediate right now is the yield. Are we going to fill our class? Campus is closed. Don’t know when it’s going to reopen, and families are reluctant on their end because they’re not sure what the future is gonna hold.
For the international population you work with, what challenges have you seen them undergo?
There’s the visa. Embassies have started closing around the world and consulate offices. These kids aren’t even going to be able to interview for their visa. So that’s a huge problem. We can admit as many international students as we want, and hopefully as many that we want to deposit, but they physically right now wouldn’t even be able to get here due to the travel bans and visa blockages. And again, will we even be open in August?
What are you seeing accepted students do now in response that they typically don’t do?
A lot of kids are deferring more than usual. Kids who already had made the deposit are asking, can I defer for a year? Most places allow to students to keep their spot in the class for one year, they don’t have to reapply, but they can arrive a year later. I bet that’ll be more common to hear the kids who pay the deposit to secure their place and then they just want to wait a year.
Yield seems to be a big problem, with campus visits and accepted student days cancelled across the board. What about recruiting new students?
When you think about the future, recruitment has changed completely like overnight. When you think about recruiting juniors in high school and sophomores in high school, there’s hardly any spring travel. I have colleagues from other universities who had trips planned and they all started getting cancelled left and right when this virus spread, and then even the ones whose trips got canceled halfway through. So traditional recruitment travel was completely thrown out the window. And I bet that will be true for the fall.
It seems like virtual events will be our next foreseeable future. Do you see that too?
You’ll see very little in the way of college fairs and big group high school visits, as high schools are closed around the world too. Traditional recruitment, travel, where you go out to high schools and college fairs is going to be on hold for a while. So virtual things have blown up. I’ve had my inbox flooded with companies that luckily had this platform available that now is in demand, where students can can virtually experience a college fair.
What about recruiting internationally? For many colleges with declining enrollment, international students are the next best bet. Coronavirus travel bans are throwing a wrench into the process.
Agents or in-country representatives. This will probably be a model that that will be more popular where we hire someone in India, who lives in India, and they represent Widener for us because I don’t want to travel right now. I think you’ll see more of that. This already exists. Some schools do this where the person lives in China but works for an American university and they act like a regional rep, but international. It will just be the new model for a while.
How else have you seen the coronavirus affect your work in admissions?
I think a third way that the coronavirus is affected everything is just the current students. There were all kinds of issues when when Widener announced it was closed. The kid who was 20 minutes away in Wilmington, Delaware is all set but the kid who lives in Nigeria, all of a sudden, that’s a big deal. You have to leave camp. A lot of these kids didn’t have the money. Number one, it’s a financial issue. Kids don’t have the $3,000 lying around to buy a ticket two days down the road when you’re told to go home.
What kind of aid do you give those students from abroad?
We worked on a case-by-case basis to see what made the most sense. Students had to decide “do I go home?” or “do I stay?” If you go home, you might not be able to come back because of travel bans and visa restrictions. But someone went home to China, but they right now physically can’t get back to the U.S. because there’s a travel restriction from people coming from China.