How the process has changed amid a pandemic
By Samantha Bernt, Elizabeth Nunnally and Peyton Stoike
College students are adjusting to an unprecedented school year.
Luke Swanson, a Dannebrog native, was having a successful spring semester. The sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was improving his grades and had periodic check-ins with academic advisors to ensure his success.
Then, COVID-19 started to spread across the United States.
On March 12, UNL announced all classes would be moved to a remote format. Swanson said that’s when he began to struggle academically.
“I’ve always kind of had a tendency to struggle a little bit,” Swanson said. “So when COVID happened, that made things a lot harder.”
Swanson said he had difficulties with remote learning. He said his grades suffered when he did not have regular access to the resources he was utilizing to ensure his academic success.
“I had kind of like weekly check-ups with a different advisor than I normally was using, and he helped me a lot before COVID happened,” Swanson said. “And then once COVID happened, it kind of just got cut off.”
When UNL transitioned to a remote learning format, Swanson’s classes were switched to an asynchronous format.
“It was hard because I couldn’t ask the professors questions during class,” he said. “I could set up a session with a teaching assistant but sometimes they weren’t able to answer questions I thought the professors could.”
Swanson said not having in-person classes or meetings with the resources he used to help him academically was a big factor for him when he decided not to come back to UNL this fall.
“I’m a very hands-on, in-person type of learner, and my brain just doesn’t work like that,” he said.
For now, Swanson will be taking a break from school until life during the pandemic calms down. He is not sure when he will be returning. But, he isn’t the only one who has changed his college plans due to the pandemic.
Hannah Hovendick of Lincoln also considered taking a year off from school before enrolling as a freshman. The day before check-in, she decided that despite the circumstances COVID had caused at universities, she didn’t want to wait a year before starting.
She, along with her parents, researched and decided that Masters University in California was the best option for her. Hovendick was especially drawn to Masters’ welcoming, Christ-centered environment.
She said that those characteristics have made her transition much easier and helped her to adjust to being away from home.
“It’s also been fun, too, because in California, when you do things, it’s mainly going to the beach,” she said. “We’ve tried to make the best of it that we can, but it’s been pretty difficult.”
Hovendick is grateful for the outdoorsy culture but admitted the difficulty of making new friends.
“It’s not what everyone said college was gonna be like,” Hovendick said.
Not only have COVID restrictions made it difficult to make new friends, but she said online learning harmed her academic experience.
Attending classes that are primarily online has caused confusion. Hovendick admitted that sometimes the professors aren’t the best at keeping students up to date. However, she also understands that this situation is new for professors, too.
“I think that’s just them learning how to do all of this because they’ve never had to do everything online before,” she said.
Despite these challenges, she plans to return to Masters University for the spring semester and is excited about the warm weather and the ability to socialize outside.
Lincoln colleges: University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Nebraska Wesleyan
Colleges across the country have had to adjust how they recruit incoming freshmen and retain students currently enrolled.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Nebraska Wesleyan University have taken new approaches to admissions and enrollment.
Abby Freeman, the director of undergraduate admissions at UNL, said recruitment took a hit when COVID-19 became prevalent in March of 2020.
Freeman said she often hears that students do not think they are ready to apply compared to a normal school year but said it is too early to tell how next year will look. She said this fall has already looked different.
“The biggest loss was really in our international student population, which isn’t surprising, as some of those students couldn’t even get into the country,” Freeman said.
Changes in recruitment strategies also affected prospective student tours of college campuses. UNL and Nebraska Wesleyan are using Zoom to give prospective students the best experience.
“In terms of campus visits, we are still able to have campus visits, and we’re really grateful to be able to do that because it’s not the case at every institution,” Freeman said. “There’s a lot of virtual fairs, but we’re really trying to be somewhat picky in what fairs we think will actually benefit the university, the right students and are worth our time.”
Freeman said UNL continues recruiting at Nebraska high school college fairs both in-person and virtually. She said about half the high schools UNL recruits at are allowing in-person visitors and college fairs.
“A lot of the in-person where I can see you, you’re right there with me, that has been drastically cut short,” she said. “We still get to have that interaction, but it’s much much different.”
Bill Motzer, the president for enrollment management at Nebraska Wesleyan University, said all of their enrollment channels have been converted to a virtual format, except in-person campus tours that are more limited.
Motzer said Wesleyan hosted in-person scholarship events that were relevant to a student’s particular academic interest and hosted about 28 students a day on campus tours.
Last year, Motzer said the social sciences scholarship had 153 students attend in person, and 246 attended in the virtual format.
“So, we are finding that in a very interesting way that we will likely not return to a live in-person format, or we may find a way to blend the two so that the students from across the nation can participate without the need to travel here and experience it,” Motzer said.
Eligibility for scholarships and financial aid also changed.
Before COVID-19, UNL could extend scholarship eligibility to students with a 3.0 GPA, to make up for the core classes and class rank, which used to be the main requirements. Since the pandemic hit, they were able to make more adjustments to allow more students the ability to attend UNL.
Freeman said prospective students no longer need a ACT or SAT test score to be eligible for merit-based scholarships. She said that process moved quickly due to COVID-19.
Nebraska Wesleyan became a test-optional institution in 2014 but realized because of COVID-19 it needed to be expanded.“So, prior to COVID, we had a level where a test-optional student with a 3.5 GPA could get an academic scholarship. However, since the significant cancellation of ACT and SAT testing and the availability of scholarships, we expanded that so that essentially a student with a weighted GPA of a 4.0 would be able to receive our top scholarship of $20,000. That was the equivalent of someone that would have a 3.75 and a 30 ACT. So now, regardless of their testing access, we would have a Merit scholarship based solely on their high school GPA.”
Both UNL and Nebraska Wesleyan offer hybrid, in-person and remote format classes this year, but Motzer said it isn’t one size fits all.
Mortzer said one of the benefits of the size of Nebraska Wesleyan is the majority of classes have 20 or fewer students, which makes social distancing easier.
“We can social distance within the classroom in some settings, or we can split the class and have 10 or fewer in-person, 10 attending virtually and we can rotate that kind of attendance,” he said. “So that’s very common within the context of many of our classes.”
Although distancing and wearing masks in classrooms makes in-person classes possible, it makes it difficult to make friends.
“It’s a lot harder to get to know people,” Hovendick said. “You’re always in a mask. It’s really hard to have a conversation with someone when you feel like you can’t even see their facial expressions.”
Even with all these changes, Freeman believes students will still have a great college experience.
“I think we’re just doing the best we can,” she said. “And the thing I love about Nebraska is I feel like people work really hard for the greater good, and that’s definitely true in my office and my division. We know how important getting students here is. And so our days look different, but we’re still working just as hard if not harder to make sure we can bring in a great class for the university.”“I think we’re just doing the best we can. And the thing I love about Nebraska is I feel like people work really hard for the greater good, and that’s definitely true in my office and my division. We know how important getting students here is. And so our days look different, but we’re still working just as hard if not harder to make sure we can bring in a great class for the university.”
Community Colleges: SCC and CCC
Recruitment looks very different these days for Southeast Community College (SCC) and Central Community College (CCC). Campus tours have started up again in full force, but permanent changes have also been made.
“There are a million things we have needed to do and wanted to do, and other things took priority,” Bailey Michaels, admissions representative at Southeast Community College said. “When COVID hit, it forced us to make innovative changes and we aren’t going back.”
According to Michaels, recruiting virtually has been beneficial in many ways and freed up time for admissions staff. They have worked hard to utilize social media and virtual meetings.“The way we work with high school counselors being able to Zoom with students across the state we aren’t going to go back and change that. That’s been amazing, and we should have always been doing that.”
Having direct conversations with students and connecting with them through multiple avenues has helped admissions to be more intentional. Janel Walton, dean of enrollment management at Central Community College says they are focusing more on students that are seriously considering attending CCC.“Students who wanted and were really interested in CCC really did seek us out versus students who just went to every booth to get swag and fill out a card. We are getting a more accurate pool of students who are interested in attending in the fall.”
Having strong relationships with high schools and high school counselors has also helped community colleges reach students.
Many high school students take classes through community colleges for college credit. Michaels believes that this familiarity makes community colleges more attractive to students.
“I think people are nervous to make big moves right now,” she said. “They are familiar with SCC; they already have a connection, and their counselor is familiar. It’s a comfortable and natural progression to the next step.”
For students feeling the financial costs of the pandemic, the low costs of community college is also a draw. Walton said that if students don’t see themselves getting the true college experience and are going to be online anyways, they would rather choose the less expensive option.
“A lot of people are questioning if things aren’t going to be normal,” she said. “‘Am I better off doing classes online and staying at home?’ Because what they were anticipating at their four-year school isn’t the reality right now.”
Both Walton and Michaels are trying to make the most of the situation and help students to have the best experience possible.
“COVID has changed the way we do work, and we panicked there for a minute and then got our bearings,” Michaels said. “I think we do a better job now of how we do our work because we have to be more efficient.”
State colleges: Chadron State College and Wayne State College
State colleges in Nebraska have had to adapt to the pandemic, too.
Other than the addition of masks and social distancing, both Wayne State College and Chadron State College did not make many changes to their school year or admissions standards.
“Really nothing has changed,” said Alex Helmbrecht, director of college relations at Chadron State College. “So Chadron State College, similar to Peru [State College] and Wayne State, is an open-enrollment institution. So that is our mission.”
The number of students at both institutions has remained similar to previous years. Wayne State College saw its second largest freshman class in the institution’s history.
According to Kevin Halle, director of admissions for Wayne State, they have found that students continue to choose the comforts of choosing a school closer to home.
“It is reflective of who we are, the product that we offer, the experience that we offer and all of the support that goes along with it and a great affordable price,” Halle said. “And that is how we talk about ourselves. That is how we market ourselves.”
For freshman Crystal Garza, an Alliance, Neb. native, Chadron State was close to home.
“I decided to go (to college) in a pandemic just because I didn’t want to wait,” Garza said.
Garza has both face-to-face and Zoom classes.
In March, the administration spoke to Chadron State students and a majority of them wanted to resume face-to-face classes.“CSC has really tried to say, ‘listen, students, what is it that you want?. What are your expectations? How can we help you during this time’ and I’ve just been really pleased with how everyone has come together on this campus.”
The biggest shift on both campuses is the lack of face-to-face and the implementation of Zoom into classrooms. There needed to be more innovative and creative decisions in a moment’s notice, Halle said.
“It has definitely been hard, but I think everyone’s getting used to it at this point,” Garza said.