College commitments during Covid: USF and incoming first-years get creative and stay hopeful

Mardy Harding

Staff Writer 

In a normal year, May 1 represents a milestone for many high school seniors: national college decision day.  After months of worrying about college applications, test scores, and supplemental materials, they finally commit their futures to an institution. They may turn their focus to declaring a major and planning the next step of their lives as they solidify where they will be in the fall.

May 1 takes on a new meaning during a pandemic: all of that is still up in the air.

But as of May 4, the 1,266 domestic and 205 international students who committed to USF for the fall of 2020 at least have an idea of their future. Both USF and its prospective students remain hopeful for the future and have learned from this spring’s experience.

“In a year in which even the very strongest colleges and universities struggled to sustain a May 1st commitment deadline, reportedly scrambling through waiting lists, commitments to date are surprising and gratifying,” Michael Beseda, vice provost for strategic enrollment management, said in an email. Though few enrollment numbers are made public, The New York Times reported that schools are pulling from their waitlists, extending commitment deadlines, and waiving deposit requirements at a rate that suggests immense concern for enrollment numbers. 

At USF, this year’s first-year commitments were 2% higher than last year’s for domestic commitments, and 2% lower for international commitments. Beseda noted that this is also surprising, considering USF’s geographic and economic diversity and that, historically, the University sees its yields (the percentage of admitted students who enroll) develop later in the summer.

Nobody is denying that the future is uncertain, however. Beseda said Strategic Enrollment Management is preparing for these numbers to fall — possibly by as much as 30%, twice the normal “melt” rate. Though additional commitments are expected during summer, this many students breaking their commitments would result in a first-year class of 980 domestic students and 165 international students. That would be 16% and 19% fewer, respectively, than what the school budgeted for, but a possibility that must be considered.

Committed incoming first-year student Eloika Schemmel from Washington state admitted that her plans may change. One of the reasons she chose USF was that she wanted to live in San Francisco. “Hopefully, in the fall it doesn’t come to online classes,” she said in an email, “but if it did, I might reconsider taking a gap semester.” Schemmel said the pandemic prevented her from being able to visit schools while making her decision, but she was grateful for the opportunity to take virtual tours.

Blayde Omura, a committed first-year from Hawaii, snuck in a live tour in February and later attended a financial aid webinar, which he said was helpful. “It’s a global wide pandemic, so no matter where I go, I run the risk of getting it. So the virus did not affect my college decision too much,” he said. “The main concern with my peers and I have to do with the start date. It seems like the future is so uncertain, but we all really want a traditional orientation.”  

USF’s admissions office pushed out a multitude of remote opportunities and events for admitted students, and Beseda suspects this made all the difference for commitments to the University.

As a University Ambassador, sophomore Sunshine Batasin is tasked with representing the University to prospective students via tours and admittance events. “The shelter-in-place threw us a curveball because there was about three weeks left until our largest admitted student [events], Destination USF  — renamed Imagine USF — and Students of Color Experience,” she said. These events were ultimately held on their original dates with livestreamed activities. University Ambassadors also hosted Texting Nights, Phonecasting Nights, and individual Zoom-call interviews to give prospective students information.

“Increasing the amount of live opportunities to connect, ask questions, etc. online/virtually stands out to me as one of our most effective tactics,” Batasin said. “My fellow Ambassadors and I kept that in mind when planning most of these events; it’s one thing to go on our website and look for information, but it’s something totally different when you get to ask questions as if you were there.”

Beseda said the virtual nature of their operations opened doors for new ways to connect with prospective students. Referring to a phonecast, he said, “The first time we did that, we had thousands of students. We’ve never had an [in-person] event with thousands of students.” Beseda said information sessions for parents saw hundreds tune in, and sessions with financial aid counselors had almost a thousand prospective students and parents listening. Additionally, he said that hundreds of incoming first-years were able to speak with a faculty member from their major’s department, which has never happened before.

After the pandemic, “We will do recruitment differently,” Beseda said. In-person events won’t disappear, but he expects to travel less, hold more virtual events, and focus on more intimate interactions, especially for students who can’t visit campus before the fall.

For transfer students, Beseda noted that due to previous adjustments to account for expected decreases, “commitments to date are encouraging and provide some reassurance that those targets will be met.”

The academic profile of incoming first-years and transfers remains similar to years’ past. The average GPA for committed first-years remains the same, and the average test score saw a 20-point increase after USF’s decision to make submitting test scores optional in fall 2019. One notable difference this year was an unexpected increase in the number of students coming from outside California, which jumped to 40%. “While yields on admitted students from outside CA fell, the number of students from the south, Midwest, and northeast who nonetheless committed to USF is striking,” Beseda wrote.

Commitments also included 32 students who will make up the first cohort of USF’s School of Engineering, 75% of whom are students of color, and just over one-third are women.

The uncertainty that the summer and fall present make all of this subject to change. “I fully expect more students than ever to melt and then “refreeze” as health and safety conditions shift,” Beseda said. “I also expect attitudes towards the gap year or local community college option to evolve as students and families explore the benefits and limitations of those opportunities.”

Omura, for one, feels confident about his decision. “During this entire COVID ordeal, it’s made me appreciate school and friends so much more since we learned it can be taken away at any time,” he said. “If school is online in the fall, it’ll make me appreciate my [in-person] college experience that much more.”  

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