In normal years, Cal State University San Marcos sets a Nov. 30 priority deadline for most freshman applications. This year, with recruiters unable to visit high schools during the pandemic, that deadline is now Jan. 31 for nearly all majors at the campus in northern San Diego County.
Admissions offices across California are taking similar steps. Campuses are worried that some high school seniors need extra time to submit their applications because they lack face-to-face contact with guidance counselors, and their families are struggling with health and money problems. Some students have delayed applying because they don’t trust that universities will return to in-person classes next fall.
The entire CSU system gave students an extra two weeks, to Dec. 15, as the earliest possible application deadline. But by that date, the application totals across the 23-campus system were somewhat below what they were a year before. Then 15 of those CSU campuses pushed the deadline out further by a month or two for all or some majors, some even into late February and early March.
The campuses with the longest deadline extensions tend to be those with the largest enrollment dips. While the number of new freshmen across the entire CSU system dropped by 6% this fall compared to fall 2019, enrollment patterns were uneven. Eleven CSU campuses saw drops, most notably in Northern California, such as Sonoma (down 9.7%) and Humboldt (7.9%). The other half were either flat or were up as much as 5% at Fresno and 6.4% at Pomona.
Officials hope their plans to return to in-person classes by September will keep more students attending, especially since enrollment is important for state funding.
Some students may “feel skeptical” about the university’s commitment to reopen physical classes in the fall and also worry whether vaccines will be fully available by then, explained Scott Hagg, CSU San Marcos’ associate vice president for enrollment management. So the application deadline for San Marcos was moved to Jan. 31 to provide applicants “an opportunity to absorb the information” about fall classes and to encourage them to apply even if they are not certain they will attend, he said.
CSU San Marcos’ 2,225 new freshmen and 2,093 new transfers this past fall approximated the year before. But concerns persist about next fall because of the pandemic’s impact and unrelated declines in the numbers of local high school graduates, part of a national demographic trend exacerbated in some areas by high housing costs. About 15,400 students applied for freshmen entrance for fall 2020 and so far 13,481 have applied for fall 2021. Hagg expects about 14,000 by Jan. 31.
Students who aspire to go to college
The CSU system has taken extra steps this year to encourage applicants, including online recruiting sessions based at high schools and CSU campuses and more email and texting messages to high school counselors and students, said Luoluo Hong, the system’s Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs & Enrollment Management.
In addition, CSU is bolstering efforts to talk to students who began their online applications but never submitted them. That is a surprisingly large group — 124,435 last year, equaling about half of the those who did apply.
By starting but not completing applications, those students “showed an aspiration that they wanted to go to college” but then barriers may have arisen, Hong said. So those would-be applicants are sent information about application fee waivers, financial aid and other advice that might get them to finish the application, Hong said. Deadline extensions, she said, “provide flexibility to eliminate unnecessary barriers.”
Josh Godinez, a counselor at Centennial High School in Riverside County and the president of the California Association of School Counselors, said counselors and families appreciate the extra time.
“It’s a little more relief for kids who were grappling with what next year will look like,” he said, referring to whether in-person classes will resume and whether students will postpone college to help support their families if parents fell ill or lost jobs. If universities continue with all online courses next fall, some students may start a less costly community college rather than a CSU or a University of California campus, he said.
The number of students who will apply in these upcoming weeks will not be huge, but Godinez said: “If it helps one, it will be worth it.”
Such extensions are not unheard of. Two years ago, extensive wildfires led CSU to delay its application deadline to at least Dec. 15. And even without emergencies, some campuses with unfilled slots have traditionally — but less publicly — allowed a trickle of applications as late as summer.
Nationally, undergraduate enrollment at four-year public colleges and universities was down nearly 2% in fall 2020 compared to the previous year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That includes a 10.5% decline in the number of first-year students at those four-year universities.
Despite all the problems triggered by the pandemic, counter trends may encourage applications.
Pandemic exacerbates enrollment lags
Applicants to CSU and UC do not have to submit scores this year from standardized tests such as SAT or ACT. Students who otherwise feared their scores were too low may now decide to apply, officials said. That may be why applications from California high school seniors at UC’s nine undergraduate campuses are up about 12% so far this year over last, according to preliminary numbers.
Also, some UC and CSU campuses, particularly those seen as very prestigious, may receive more applications and enrollments from Californians who, because of pandemic concerns, have dropped plans to attend colleges out of state.
Across UC, the number of first-year students was estimated to have increased by 2.5% compared to Fall 2019, partly driven by additional state funding that allowed additional slots for Californians.
Due to technology problems with its application server, UC extended its deadline by four days to Dec. 4. Then to bolster applications where there was still potential room, that was stretched out until Jan. 8 for transfer applicants to the Santa Cruz and Riverside campuses and for both freshmen and transfers at Merced.
At some CSU campuses, the published or so-called priority deadlines were often considered flexible if there remained room in certain majors and programs. This year, more applications than ever may be allowed that way.
For example, the pandemic has exacerbated ongoing enrollment problems at Humboldt State. That CSU campus in far northern California faces declining population in its region and a dip in Southern Californians attending what some perceive as a school too far from home. Humboldt State saw its enrollment of new freshmen drop by about a third to 542 this past fall from 2019; that continued a sharp decline from 1,420 five years ago.
For the past several years, Humboldt set a Feb. 28 deadline to be given priority consideration in all majors. This year, the school is repeating that date but expects to allow more applicants than ever to be considered well into late spring if room remains in some programs, according to Pedro Martinez, director of admissions.
The pandemic and online schooling “definitely made things more complicated to get out our message about what the university’s offerings are,” Martinez said.
Yet Martinez said early indications are that the campus will be able to grow its freshman numbers for the upcoming fall as admissions officials work hard to answer students’ questions about housing, financial aid and majors.
Outreach efforts to enroll students
CSU San Bernardino will have conducted at least 200 online events, virtual visits to high schools and other workshops to recruit and enroll applicants this application cycle, estimates Rachel Beech, associate vice president for enrollment management. The campus has extended its priority application deadline for freshmen until Feb. 1.
The university enrolled 2,300 freshmen this past fall, down by about 250 from fall 2019, but that loss was offset by gains in transfer students, Beech said. She hopes to enroll about the same number of students next fall but emphasized that some high school seniors remain hesitant to make college decisions because of uncertainty about the pandemic and the economy.
That makes it difficult to predict and to plan. “All of our playbooks are a little bit out of the window,” Beech said.