The process of applying to college can be nerve-racking for many students, from writing the perfect essay to filling out different forms and paying application fees. Amid a pandemic, this common step to adulthood has become increasingly more difficult, if not impossible.
According to Inside Higher Ed, while overall admissions trends were up by 10% in February 2020, “the numbers of first-generation applicants and fee-waiver recipients each declined (by three and two percentage points, respectively),” as reported from the Common Application. However, colleges and universities “in the Southwestern part of the country are seeing the most growth (21.3%).”
With a desire to provide prospective students as normal of a college search as possible, the admissions team at John Brown University has adapted over the past year. With the support of JBU faculty and staff, their work has resulted in receiving “more applications now than we ever have,” Hannah Bradford, director of admissions, said.
In March 2020, when the university campus closed due to the pandemic, the admissions staff revamped their recruitment plans. Bradford said that the cancelation of Eagle Base Camp, where students have in-person early registration, was devastating. “It’s important because it really helps people to feel connected and solidify their decision,” Bradford said.
To replace these experiences for students, staff pivoted toward digital opportunities, including a virtual Eagle Base Camp, as many families faced travel restrictions during the summer. “The faculty stepped up and got all the freshmen registered online in the summer, which was fantastic,” Bradford said.
International students, including missionary kids and military kids, experienced the severe impacts of the pandemic during their college search. “Week to week, the story was different on if they would be able to come,” Bradford said. “Certain countries would only have one flight out a week or maybe even less.” However, some of these students have enrolled in the spring semester as their countries have opened.
As the fall semester approached, the staff focused on their two key recruitment strategies: visiting schools and having prospective students visit JBU’s campus. To work with high schools that had pandemic visitor restrictions, admissions staff created giveaway boxes for classes. “The admission counselors would mail that to the school, and then [they] would be on the screen and say, ‘Okay, so-and-so, pull a giveaway from the box,’ and they would do their presentation,” Bradford said. “It was really good because it allowed us to go to places that we normally don’t travel … [like] a school visit in Virginia.”
To give students a sense of campus, counselors hosted virtual visits via FaceTime and Zoom. Bradford said they also offered to pay for plane tickets for families who lived at least four or five hours from the Siloam Springs campus.
For campus visits during the academic year, the school had to limit the size of Preview Days to allow for social distancing. Most visits were limited to 35 students with one guest. An additional restriction came with campus spaces. Visitors exchanged larger spaces, such as the Simmons Great Hall, with classes, and groups were unable to have normal dorm hall tours. “We can show them the quarantine spaces that are empty … but we couldn’t imagine traipsing 60 people through someone’s room,” Bradford said. “That would be totally unsafe. That’s why we’re really pushing for Eagle Base Camp this summer.”
One leading event for admissions is the Scholarship Weekend, where students compete for the $27,500 Presidential Scholarship and the $14,000 Chancellor’s Scholarship. Previously, students came to campus for in-person and group interviews, along with a banquet meal and a session on the Honors Scholars program.
This year, the competition was split into either a virtual or in-person interview with the student’s admission counselor during both semesters. “One cool thing that happened because we were doing those … [is that] we allowed international students to fully participate,” Bradford said. “Normally for missionary kids and internationals who haven’t been able to come to campus … we would only let them get the Chancellor’s … but we decided to open it up and let them compete for the Presidential as well. So, this year, we had our first international student win the Presidential, which is so exciting.”
Sarah Choate, student intern for admissions, describes the efforts as “business as usual within the COVID guidelines.” “We’ve had to be flexible alongside prospective students who need to work with online options, but COVID hasn’t stopped students from pursuing their dreams,” Choate said.
The current view
The admissions staff has continued to adapt during the spring semester by creating Saturday preview days, allowing the limit to be raised to 50 students. Bradford said she was grateful for all of campus who worked on the weekend to make the event possible. “Chip was there, faculty representatives from every department were there … and we’re planning on doing another on May 1 because the first Saturday event was such a success,” Bradford said.
Feedback from prospective students and families has been positive and encouraging, even in the midst of such difficult circumstances. “The responses have been about the same as far as things that they’ve noticed about JBU being kind and welcoming. They always say … that faculty and staff are just so approachable,” Bradford said. “I think in some ways that’s a testament to JBU’s culture … even with masks and social distancing, visitors still felt really welcome.”
As of March 19, the top five majors by deposit were mechanical engineering, nursing, psychology, biology and elementary education, according to the JBU Admissions Office. For submitted applications, the top majors were graphic design and communication for the College of Bible, Humanities and Arts, as of March 18. Management and general business were the top two for the Soderquist College of Business, and psychology and kinesiology were the top majors for the College of Education and Social and Behavioral Sciences. For the College of STEM and Health Professions, the top majors were biology and nursing.
Grateful for the community
Despite the pressure that admissions has faced in recruiting students during a global pandemic, the staff expressed thankfulness for the support shown across the university. “It was a good mix of relying on the Lord to provide and just knowing that all of campus was pulling for us and everyone was involved,” Bradford said.
Hannah-Beth Kline, student intern for admissions, echoed Bradford’s sentiment. “Thanks to the servanthood and willingness of each counselor, we not only survived, but thrived,” Kline said. “We engineered new ways to reach prospective families … within the new COVID protocols. In short, working in admissions during the pandemic encouraged me to endure this particularly difficult season for the hope set before us in Christ Jesus.”