In a normal year, Northern California high school senior Alain Kanadjian would be touring college campuses, attending college fairs in gyms or convention centers and meeting with college recruiters. All in person.

But this is not a normal year for Kanadjian and hundreds of thousands of other California students getting ready to apply for college admission. During the pandemic, those face-to-face options to help them decide which schools best fit their interests, aptitudes and wallets have all evaporated.

Instead, the college application and recruiting process — like classes at most high schools and universities — has switched to virtual connections. Enormous college fairs are being held online. Campus tours are virtual. And college representatives are visiting groups of high school students via Zoom.

The stakes are pretty high. Whether the virtual options work will help determine whether colleges and universities get the enrollment and tuition revenues they need next fall.

Students, too, face high stakes in selecting a favorite college or — if they are turned off by the possibility of virtual classes — delaying college. Despite helping many students, online recruiting is discouraging to others who are Zoom fatigued, and attendance is much reduced at some virtual events at high schools compared to last year’s in-person ones.

Kanadjian recently participated in a virtual college fair sponsored by the Coalition for College, a group of 150 campuses that is dedicated to improving access to higher education. Hoping to study computer engineering or biomedical engineering, he was able to join presentations and chat sessions with, among other schools, Rice University and Georgia Tech. Separately, he joined in the session when a UC Davis representative virtually visited with interested students from his school, Carlmont High School in Belmont, in San Mateo County.

Overall, Kanadjian came away with mixed feelings about the virtual experiences. “It’s better than nothing,” he said. He appreciated the information and time the college representative provided, but felt that “online doesn’t compare” to in-person interviews and visits to campuses.

Alain Kanadjian, a senior at Carlmont High in Belmont, joined a college fair via Zoom. (Photo courtesy of Aimee Kanadjian)

Across California and the nation, the many virtual events are getting a mixed reception from students, colleges and high school counselors. No one calls them ideal but most consider them a decent substitute.

Some officials note that the online events are widening access to students and families who, with financial or transportation problems, might not have been able to visit campuses or meet with the college recruiters if there was no pandemic. Those experts anticipate that some virtual recruiting will continue even after the health emergency ends.

6,000 students take part in virtual college fairs

As many as 6,000 students nationwide participated in each of the five Coalition for College fairs held since the spring. (Others are scheduled for Oct. 21-22 and Nov. 4-5.)

Stacey Kostell, the organization’s chief executive officer, said fairs aim to expose students to as many schools as possible, with hourlong blocks featuring several groups of four or so campuses making joint presentations. The health dangers of COVID-19 led to “an opportunity to try something new.” Students can be more focused and attentive online than during the traditional walking from table to table in big gymnasiums or convention centers where prior fairs were held, she said.

But it is “hard to predict” how this and other pandemic-related changes will affect college applications and attendance, Kostell added.

Similarly, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) held a large online fair on Sept. 13, with about 607 colleges participating. It was delayed for an hour by technical problems, caused in part by what officials said was a massive number of students — 20,000 registered — trying to log on at the same time. That was fixed by computer experts.

Alexis Hartman, a senior at Troy High school in Fullerton in Orange County, said the recent NACAC fair helped her find schools offering the classes and major to pursue a career in speech language pathology. She went to six online sessions and was able to connect with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; University of Oregon, Cal State Northridge and others. She also has attended several colleges’ all online visits with students from her high school.

The pandemic and shutdown of in-person classes have made the college application process “a lot harder, a lot scarier,” said Hartman. “It makes me even more unsure of where I’m going to wind up, what the future holds for me.” She was glad to join the fair, describing it as “so helpful.”

With traditional fairs and meetups at high schools banned this year, Omar Zazueta, director of admission at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, said his school is participating in several online fairs along with virtually visiting many individual high schools.

‘Good enough for now’

“I think it’s going to be good enough for now. There is no alternative. We are not able to get on a plane and visit a bunch of high schools. And it is very important for us to be accessible to students and families in many different ways,” he explained.

Attendance at high school events is lower than last year but the level of personal interaction can be deeper since “a student does not get lost in the noise” and is able to make private follow-up appointments. The biggest loss, Zazueta said, is that of in-person campus tours, even if schools provide recorded and live online tours.

UC Merced’s director of admissions Dustin Noji said the downside of virtual fairs is that “you don’t benefit from the pedestrian traffic of students walking an auditorium or event center, looking up and recognizing your campus name, and stopping by your table.”

The switch has required colleges to produce high quality video presentations and to be more tech-savvy to ensure students have access to higher education.

“Our office has come to accept that we can’t conduct recruitment the way we have in the past,” said Noji in an email. “Even after this year, it seems like things won’t return to the way they were.” Many students and families will expect online events to continue for the accessibility and convenience after the pandemic even as face-to-face tours and interviews are revived, many college officials say.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling scheduled four online fairs this fall. (Image courtesy of NACAC)

Viewpoint School, a private K-12 campus in Calabasas, is offering online visits to about 50 colleges this fall, compared to 120 colleges in previous years, according to Rebecca Heller, Senior Associate Director of College Counseling. In the past, students could leave classes to attend in person, but this year visits are scheduled only during lunch or after school to prevent disruptions of online learning.

Compared to traditional meetings, the online ones “are slightly inferior but not much” since the same information is exchanged, Heller said. Students are asked to turn on their cameras to make sure some personal connection is made although it is more difficult to create a relationship with college representatives than in person, she said. The virtual tours run by colleges and groups can’t fully substitute for “what does it feel like to feel to walk on your campus.”

Palos Verdes High School, near Los Angeles, considered dropping college visits altogether this year and instead encourage students to explore college websites and other online resources. But colleges were eager to still come virtually, possibly because fewer students are taking standardized tests, which can provide recruiting tips to colleges, according to Joanne Lewis, director of the high school’s College and Career Center. Many colleges have used scores and other information from the SAT or ACT to invite students to apply. 

More than 150 colleges, about the same as last year’s in-person visits, have signed up. Student participation in virtual meetings with recruiters, however, “is crazily down,” Lewis said. “I personally think these kids are Zoomed out,” Lewis said. “They are in front of computer screens throughout the day.”

For example, a Dartmouth University recruiter normally attracted 100 or so students from the two schools but drew only six the other day. The usually popular University of California campuses are getting a third of their past 150 or so. As a result, students who do attend can find strong opportunities to connect with campus representatives, she added.

Isaac Anchanattu, a senior at Mountain House High School in Northern California’s San Joaquin County, attended the recent NACAC fair to help him “solidify” where to apply to college as an electrical engineering major. It was easier than traveling to a regional in-person fair an hour away, and he was delighted to meet with representatives of colleges who probably would not have attended a local fair or visited his high school. Still, he added: “I would have preferred it in person.”

Story originally published by EdSource.