Pushing back National College Decision Day in 2020 was one of the many shifts in higher education due to the coronavirus pandemic. But as the world slowly returns to some sense of normalcy with vaccine rollouts across the U.S., 2021 marks a return to May 1 for many schools.
“For the most part, it seems colleges and universities are using May 1 for their candidate’s response date,” Todd Rinehart, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, wrote in an email.
“Last year the challenges of (COVID-19), and the related closures and restrictions, really ramped up in the spring when students were finalizing decisions. There was so much uncertainty that many schools pushed the commitment deadline to June 1st. While the effects of the pandemic continue to have a significant impact on many families, generally the economy and the (COVID-19) restrictions are in a better place than this time last year,” he says.
Rinehart adds that “families seem to be better equipped to finalize college decisions, especially when many campuses are allowing families to visit to get a sense of the place. Last year, many campuses were completely closed to visitors, so this year feels more stable and hopeful.”
What to Know About National College Decision Day
National College Decision Day has long been May 1 for countless colleges, though deadlines in June or even later aren’t unusual.
But last year marked a departure from the norm with numerous schools extending the deadline, some for months. At the University of Oregon, for example, the traditional May 1 deadline was moved to Sept. 1. This year, however, marks a return to May 1 for Oregon.
“Last year the pandemic really started to take hold and impact higher education in the middle of March,” says Roger J. Thompson, vice president for student services and enrollment management at the University of Oregon. “Given that everything was such a significant pivot, such a change, and the lack of knowledge about the virus or where it was going, we made the decision” to move the May 1 date back.
Some experts expect the May 1 deadline to be the norm this year. As that date nears, however, students should know that some colleges may decide sometime in April to push the May 1 deadline back, says Alejandra Acosta, a policy analyst at New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that focuses on higher education and other civic issues.
Some colleges have already made announcements pushing college decision day back and more may follow. But admissions pros say 2021 has been a good year for highly selective colleges, and less selective schools are most likely to move dates.
“Highly selective schools will utilize May 1, and they are generally strict with following this deadline,” Rinehart says. “Students interested in these schools should deposit by May 1 to secure their space in those respective classes. Many other colleges and universities utilize May 1 as an initial, minimum deadline, but tend to be flexible in allowing students to deposit, or even submit a new application beyond May 1.”
Additionally, some schools may tack on an extra few days because May 1 falls on a weekend this year, or to accommodate the large volume of applications. The entire Ivy League, for example, has moved the candidate response deadline to May 3 after announcing admissions decisions on April 6. According to a joint statement, that move was made due to “increased applications across the League and our commitment to thoughtful review of all candidates.”
Deadline flexibility is the norm for Oregon, says Thompson, noting that students can ask for additional time to make a decision if needed.
“If a student really has an issue, and wants a little more time, we’ve always been willing to give students more time. We’ve never been a school that got to May 2nd and cut everything off,” Thompson says. He adds that choosing a college is a major life decision, so students should take the time to make sure they find the right fit on a campus where they can see themselves for the next four years.
Students who do need additional time should reach out to the admissions offices at their institutions of interest to see how the process works. Additionally, some colleges may provide guidance on their websites to help students understand how to request an extension.
The impact of the varying approaches on moving college decision day or keeping it at May 1 can be difficult to predict, experts say.
“It could be a good thing for students and families. They could have more time to compare their offers, look at their own finances, or get support through the decision-making process,” Acosta says.
“But if some schools are delaying college decision day and others are not, students would have to … decide by the earlier date. Competitive students could also benefit from the delayed decision days because it could open up the opportunity for them to negotiate with colleges or for colleges to offer incentives to enroll that benefit them,” she says.
Acosta adds that “the market is very competitive these days” and colleges are working hard for every student they can enroll.
Choosing a School by National College Decision Day
Reflections on 2020 aren’t just marked by what happened, but also the many things that didn’t. High school graduations, athletics and other extracurricular activities and milestone moments were widely canceled. In the absence of those memories, Thompson says prospective college students should embrace making the decision on where to attend college as a moment worth celebrating and a step into their future.
What will happen in fall 2021 is still a question mark across higher education, but a sense of certainty is starting to slowly return, experts say. Many colleges are planning for in-person instruction after spending much of the last year offering classes largely online. Students who want to know more about classroom instruction, living in the residence halls or other aspects of campus life should reach out to colleges.
Thompson notes that many schools have offered additional tools to help students decide on a college during the pandemic. He points to virtual reality experiences and virtual tours at Oregon as examples of tools used to help prospective students better understand the university amid an admissions cycle where college visits across the U.S. were often unavailable or limited.
“You just have to find the place that’s the right fit, and what makes the most sense for you,” Thompson says. “And that can be a little harder in this pandemic when (applicants) can’t see campuses in the way that everyone in higher education would love for them to see them.”
Students who need extra time should ask for it, experts say. After all, it’s better to make the right decision late than the wrong decision early. As for the end of the traditional May 1 deadline? It seems that rumors of the death of National College Decision Day have been exaggerated.
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