Cydney Cooper attended an in-person tour at Temple University’s Main Campus a week before the university suspended in-person classes on March 11, 2020 and canceled in-person visitations when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Seeing a school’s campus in person aided Cooper, a senior at Garnet Valley High School in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania who is attending Temple in the fall, immensely in the college decision process.
“I think it’s super important to kind of like, just see where you’ll be spending four years of your life,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic shifted the college admissions process almost entirely online in a matter of days for the class of 2024. A year later, as students in the class of 2025 visit, apply to and enroll at Temple University, they’re navigating changes to the college admissions process, decreased access to campus visits and uncertainty about course formats.
Today is College Decision Day, when most colleges and universities, including Temple, require admitted students to make a nonrefundable enrollment deposit of $200 and commit to attending the university. As of April 27, a university record of more than 37,000 potential first-year students have submitted applications to Temple for the 2021-22 academic year, The Temple News reported.
Temple’s increase in applications for the upcoming academic year came after Temple recorded its lowest rates of first-year and transfer applicants and enrollment rates in years for the 2020-21 academic year, according to data compiled from Temple’s annual factbooks.
The Temple News spoke with students, faculty and administrators about how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the college admissions process for the classes of 2024 and 2025.
‘Trying to predict the future’
In the college application process, March is particularly significant. While some students are still filling out applications, many are waiting for acceptance letters from the schools they applied to or are comparing financial aid awards from multiple institutions to make a decision on which to attend, said Joseph Paris, a policy, organizational and leadership studies professor and the former director of enrollment management and marketing at Temple.
The class of 2024 was navigating this part of the college admissions process as normal before March 2020, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. After this, students had to make decisions about their post-secondary futures while navigating transitions to online learning at school and changes in their personal lives, Paris said.
All the while, students were “trying to predict the future” about whether their colleges would even be open in a few months, he added.
“A key question that everyone was asking a year ago was, ‘How long do you think this will last? When do you think we’ll be able to not be in quarantine?’” Paris said.
In addition to students’ general uncertainty about the future, student enrollment for the Fall 2020 semester may have also declined because of the financial impact of the recession that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic and parents’ concerns about their children being far from home during it, he added.
The United States’ unemployment rate was 14.7 percent in April 2020, an increase of 10.3 percentage points from the month prior and the largest monthly increase since at least 1948, according to an April 2020 press release from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of unemployed people in the U.S. rose from 6.2 million in February 2020 to 20.5 million in May 2020, according to a June 2020 report by the Pew Research Center.
During the pandemic, high college tuition prices, the need to care for ill or unemployed family members, the switch to online classes and safety concerns about attending college during a pandemic all contributed to declining college enrollment in 2020, according to a report the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice published on March 31.
Changes in income and the loss of employment as a result of the pandemic is one of the biggest challenges for students applying for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, said Edward Conroy, the associate director of institutional transformation at the Hope Center.
The FAFSA uses tax information from two years prior to calculate students’ expected family contribution, so if students or their parents lost a job during the pandemic, the FAFSA likely wouldn’t take this into account. This means that students’ financial aid awards may not be representative of their current financial need, Conroy added.
Students can appeal their financial aid award through SwiftStudent, a site with letter templates for financial aid appeals, to have their award reflect their actual expected family contribution, Conroy said.
“It’s become particularly important during a pandemic world because so many people have faced lost income, lost jobs, things like that, that there’s going to be, and there already has been, an increase in appeals for financial aid over the past year because what’s on FAFSA is out of date for anyone who’s lost income,” Conroy added.
Appealing a financial aid award is time-consuming and laborious, so not all students are able to appeal their financial aid awards from every school they were accepted to before they make a decision to enroll, Conroy said.
“You have a situation where unfortunately, some students may be having to make the decision on where they go not knowing what their final financial aid package is going to look like because of the amount of time it takes a student to gather the appeal information they need and then the amount of time it takes a financial aid office to process it,” Conroy added.
In addition to not knowing what their financial aid package looked like, some students enrolled at Temple without fully knowing what the university’s campus looked like because they were unable to attend an in-person tour.
Sam Van Pelt, an incoming art education major from Owen J. Roberts High School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, attended virtual tours hosted by Temple and watched YouTube videos from other Temple students to get a sense of what Main Campus is like.
“I tried to watch like, the school’s virtual tours and then like, just like students like vlogs and stuff,” Van Pelt said.
Based on what he saw in the videos, Van Pelt felt that Temple is lively and modern, with lots of new buildings and places like the Howard Gittis Student Center and the gyms for students to stay active, he said.
Normally, students interested in attending Temple would visit Main Campus as a junior in high school and apply Early Action in the fall of their senior year, which would potentially admit them to the university earlier than usual. Admitted students would then enroll at Temple as early as February of their senior year, although students have until May 1 to decide, said Rachel Gionta, senior associate director for marketing, communications and events at the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.
Many students in the class of 2024 were able to visit, apply to and enroll at Temple before the pandemic began, but others who wanted to visit Main Campus after receiving their acceptance letter may not have been able to, Gionta added.
“It’s just that final piece of making a decision, ‘Now I’ve been admitted to five colleges, let me go visit them again or really decide if I’m gonna go there, and then — oh shoot, now I can’t visit and all the other ins and outs,’” Gionta said. “‘My high school is shut down, I have to learn how to go to school online, someone in my family is sick with this pandemic, this disease, what is happening?’ And then the last thing on their mind is, ‘What college am I going to go to in the fall?’”
Temple hosted Experience Temple Day, which allows admitted students to tour Main Campus and explore daily life at Temple, once in February 2020, but canceled its four other admitted student events as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gionta said. Temple currently provides a virtual Experience Temple Day for admitted students on TUPortal.
“That March, April, May of 2020, the biggest change that we had to do was, ‘How do we get on campus visit experience in a virtual setting?’” Gionta said. “We tried our best, but obviously we learned from then.”
Elise Scott’s college decision process was prolonged due to the difficulties of sitting through multiple virtual campus tours.
“It was difficult not being able to visit all the colleges I applied to, especially because I didn’t have a top school like some kids,” said Scott, a senior at Garnet Valley High School. “You know, some kids, they have a number one they know from a kid, they want to go there. But I didn’t have a number one school, so that also made it tough, in addition to not being able to visit.”
Temple briefly opened campus tours during October and November 2020 but stopped to accommodate city health guidelines and rising COVID-19 cases later in the fall, Gionta said. Tours reopened in February and have continued to operate for interested students who register ahead of time, she added.
William Galanti, a freshman pharmaceutical sciences major, didn’t visit Main Campus prior to enrolling at Temple, he said.
“I knew it was a good school and two of my friends actually go here,” Galanti added. “So yeah, there wasn’t really a huge process in deciding to go to Temple. I’m like ‘Oh, Temple has the major I need. I could go here.’”
Declining applications, enrollment
In the three years prior to the pandemic, Temple recorded roughly 40,000 total applicants per year, according to Temple’s factbooks.
For the Fall 2020 semester, 37,714 people applied to Temple, the lowest number of applicants since 2015 and a 5.7 percent decrease from Fall 2019, according to Temple’s factbooks. Only 20.1 percent of first-year accepted applicants enrolled at Temple in Fall 2020, its lowest enrollment rate since at least 2013 and a 13.4 percent decrease from Fall 2019.
Nationwide, the number of students who applied for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which students complete to earn grants and financial aid to attend college, declined by 16 percent between 2019 and 2020, CBS News reported.
“In 2020, I think a lot of students never completed their application because the pandemic started and they were like, ‘Whoa, I might not even go to college in the fall,’” Gionta said.
Students applying to Temple may have been unsure whether Temple would be open in the fall and whether their classes would be online or in person, she added.
Last year, Temple’s May 1 enrollment deadline for the 2020-21 academic year came a month before the university announced its plans for a hybrid in-person and online semester on June 2. This year, Temple announced their plans for a mostly in-person Fall 2021 semester on March 1, two months prior to College Decision Day.
Temple’s decline in applications and enrollment follows nationwide trends of decreased college applicants as a result of the pandemic, with applications to public four-year institutions declining by 11 percent between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020. The Common App, an application that allows students to apply to multiple colleges and universities at the same time, reported an eight percent decline through Nov. 2, 2020, compared to the previous year, Inside HigherEd reported.
Undergraduate student enrollment in the U.S. declined by 3.6 percent between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020, and freshman enrollment nationally dropped by 13.1 percent during that same timeframe, according to a December 2020 report of Fall 2020 postsecondary schooling enrollment rates by the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit education research organization.
The switch to online classes at many universities like Temple was one of the greatest factors in this decline in enrollment in Fall 2020, according to the Hope Center.
These declines in undergraduate student enrollment significantly impacted students from low-income neighborhoods, according to the National Student Clearinghouse report.
Nevertheless, public four-year institutions like Temple reported an average 0.2 percent increase in overall enrollment, driven largely by a 4.6 percent increase in graduate school enrollment at these schools, according to the National Student Clearinghouse report.
For years, Temple was “the transfer destination,” with high transfer student enrollment rates compared to other schools as a result of the university’s transfer articulation agreements with community colleges, dual admissions programs with select community colleges and frequent updates to Temple’s transfer equivalency tool and credit evaluation process, Gionta said.
Transfer applications enrollment at Temple similarly declined as a result of the pandemic. Only 3,909 students applied to transfer to Temple for the Fall 2020 semester, its lowest number since at least 2013 and an 11.2 percent decline from Fall 2019, according to Temple’s factbooks. Nearly 56 percent of transfer students who were accepted to Temple in 2020 enrolled, its lowest enrollment rate since at least 2013 and a 9.7 percent decline from Fall 2019.
Nationwide, transfer student enrollment at public four-year universities declined by 1.9 percent from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020, according to a separate December 2020 report by the National Student Clearinghouse.
Temple’s drop in transfer student enrollment in Fall 2020 reflects a larger decline in transfer enrollment throughout the last decade. Since 2013, enrollment rates for transfer students who were admitted to Temple decreased almost every year, according to Temple’s factbooks.
This is the result of factors like decreased enrollment at community colleges, Gionta said.
A “near majority” of Temple’s incoming transfer students each year come from community colleges, wrote Shawn Abbott, vice provost for admissions, financial aid and enrollment management, in an email to The Temple News.
“Transfer recruitment is really focused on the community colleges, and when there’s less people at those institutions and more and more colleges like Temple looking at their transfer numbers, there’s more competition than ever before,” Gionta said.
The COVID-19 pandemic added to this issue, as many students were unsure whether Temple would conduct class in person for the Fall 2020 semester, Gionta said. Temple is expecting increased transfer enrollment for the Fall 2021 semester because the majority of classes will be held in person.
For Amman Bansal, a junior media studies and production major, school has been more academically challenging than he initially expected.
“It’s obviously hard when you have a lot of assignments that are given to you by your teachers, but then it’s also I feel like it’s really hard when you’re on, when you’re in this online format, especially in the midst of this pandemic,” he said. “It kind of took a toll on me mentally as well and I just felt like a couldn’t keep up with a with a game and it just it was difficult for me to even you know, trying to keep myself together, even though I got the result I wanted.”
After completing three years at Montgomery County Community College, Bansal began his first semester at Temple in Fall 2020.
“Because both semesters have been online and it’s been very difficult for me to even try and it’s been very difficult to even kind of like explore what Temple has to offer recreationally,” he added.
Dylan Bowman was only a freshman at Moorpark College in Los Angeles, California studying journalism when he received information from the Klein College of Media and Communication’s journalism program.
Longing to leave his hometown, Bowman scheduled a tour and felt an immediate connection to the city and campus.
“I kind of wanted to leave my house in the first place, so Temple just kind of provided like a landing spot for me,” Bowman said. “But also, I really just fell in love with the city when I visited.”
Bowman was steadfast on attending Temple to study journalism in Fall 2020 because of the university’s internship opportunities. Bowman had already solidified housing arrangements when COVID-19 struck the nation in March 2020, and this turn of events filled him with many reservations about transferring.
“I felt, financially, it wasn’t worth it,” Bowman said. “Also, I was scared for my health. That was probably the main one. I didn’t want to get COVID.”
Bowman prefers in-person learning, so transferring to a new school only to be online and not meet people was not worth it to him, he said.
The college admissions staffers he was working with were understanding of his reservations to stay at Moorpark for his sophomore year, and their support aided in his decision to fully commit to Temple for the Fall 2021 term, Bowman said.
“I felt like it would be the best for my future,” Bowman added.
The hope for a normal fall
More than 37,700 first-year students have applied to Temple for the 2021-22 academic year as of April 29, which is a university record, Abbott wrote in an email to The Temple News.
A 15 percent increase in out-of-state applicants was one of the largest drivers in this increase, The Temple News reported.
Roughly 16,000 of those students applied to Temple before the Early Action deadline on November 1, 2020, another university record, Abbott added.
More than 4,500 accepted students in the class of 2025 have committed to Temple as of April 29, Abbott wrote.
The regular decision deadline for the 2021-22 academic year was February 1, and admitted students had until May 1 to decide whether to enroll at Temple, according to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.
Temple plans to hold a majority of its classes in person for the Fall 2021 semester and will open its residence halls, dining halls, academic buildings and athletic and recreational facilities to students, The Temple News reported. Some classes will continue to be held online, and the university is evaluating additional campus spaces to use for in-person courses as they monitor student registration activity.
Temple students began enrolling for Fall 2021 classes on April 12, The Temple News reported.
As the university prepares to return to a campus that mirrors life before the pandemic, students are hopeful that they will have opportunities to connect with each other — past social media.
“Once you like, put Temple ‘25 in your bio people will start like, randomly DM-ing you wanting to be friends,” Van Pelt said.
Similarly, Bowman and Cooper are also excited to attend Temple in the fall and connect with people face to face.
“My expectations are more for COVID, hoping that COVID is less severe and we can kind of return to normalcy,” Bowman said. “I’m just excited to be on campus and actually meet people in my classes, not through a screen.”
After three semesters of remote learning, missing out on key high school experiences like prom, homecoming parades, banquets, sporting events and senior class field trips, Cooperis eager to wear her Temple merchandise on campus and safely meet other students during a more normal academic year.
“I can’t wait to return to somewhat of social gatherings eventually,” Cooper said. “I don’t know if that will happen my freshman year, but I just can’t wait, like the people seem super cool. The city’s awesome. I’m super duper, duper, duper excited to attend Temple in the fall.”
Join the WHIP News Department in unpacking how Tyler Perez, Haajrah Gilani, Eden MacDougall and Rosie Leonard reported “College Decision Day: How Temple’s Class of 2024 and 2025 applied to college during a pandemic.”
The Temple News is a student affiliate of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic mobility. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.
This story is part of a Spring 2021 reporting collaboration between The Temple News, WHIP Radio, Temple Update and Philadelphia Neighborhoods about the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on Temple University students’ costs of attending college.
Words by Tyler Perez, Haajrah Gilani, Eden MacDougall and Rosie Leonard
Edited by Madison Karas and Amelia Winger
Photos by Colleen Claggett
Data visualizations by Ingrid Slater
Additional collaboration contributions by Colin Evans, Hanna Lipski, Samantha Stewart, Josh Kurman and Emma Padner.