Ella Stanley of Cape Elizabeth applied to and was accepted at Wellesley College, near Boston, but has not been able to tour the campus. Photo by Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

While trying to make one of the biggest decisions of her young life – picking a college where she’ll spend the next four years and set the foundation for her future – Ella Stanley had to resort to a drive-by.

The Cape Elizabeth High School senior was accepted in mid-December to Wellesley College, outside of Boston, but has not seen much of the campus or gotten to talk to students or staff in person. Because of the pandemic, the most she could do was drive the perimeter of the campus and see the exterior of some of the buildings before applying.

“Nobody was being allowed on campus, so we just drove through. I was a little afraid of getting out and walking around. I was little freaked out,” said Stanley, 18, about her drive-by visit in October. “It’s a pretty big walking campus, so I’m not sure how much I saw. It was a little stressful making a decision about where I’ll spend the next four years, based mostly on things from the internet.”

The pandemic has radically altered the way high school seniors are picking a college, a decision that will affect the rest of their lives and cost them and their families as much as tens of thousands of dollars a year. Beginning last March, in-person tours and interviews were canceled at most schools, forcing students to rely on online research, virtual tours and information sessions. This long year of life with COVID-19 has also made prospective college students weary and cautious, some Maine high school counselors and college admissions counselors say, resulting in fewer applications being filed so far at some institutions in Maine and nationally.

Applications are down about 11 percent compared to this time last year at the University of Maine in Orono, and down by a little more than 8 percent at University of Maine System schools, university officials said. About 60 percent of more than 900 institutions that use the so-called common application as part of their admission process have seen a decline in applications this year, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“We’ve been hearing from counselors that students are burned out with all that’s happened this year and are slower than usual to apply. Plus, they’re not in school every day, where counselors could be flagging them down in the halls and helping them with their applications,” said Christopher Richards, vice president of enrollment management at the University of Maine in Orono.

Elizabeth Thomas, college counselor at Cape Elizabeth High School, says uncertainty about the continuing pandemic has played a roll in some students “dragging their feet” on applications, which usually are due by Jan. 1 at many schools and in February at others. Though vaccines are being rolled out, it’s unclear when COVID-19 will be under control enough for campuses to fully open and run as they did before. She expects that more Maine high school students will take longer to decide on a college this year and may give more consideration to schools closer to home, in Maine.

“I think a lot of people don’t want to feel like they’ll be spending $50,000 for college next fall to just do everything online,” said Thomas. “They’d rather be closer to home, waiting to see what happens.”

South Portland senior Kiley Matthews, a competitive swimmer, has not been able to visit the college pools where she might one day swim. Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

CHANGING TIMELINE

Nick Reissfelder, a senior at Biddeford High School, said the hard work of applying to colleges this fall “sort of snuck up” on students, since this whole year has been so weird. Having to move to remote learning last March “felt like a vacation” to some, he said, and that was followed by actual summer vacation. Then when seniors went back to school this fall – some remotely and some just a couple days a week – college application tasks were looming.

“I know I had a couple buddies who were really stressing out about getting all their recommendations done by Christmas,” said Reissfelder, 17. “I think the timeline this year snuck up on people.”

While many colleges have Jan. 1 or Feb. 1 application deadlines, deadlines for “early action” or “early decision” applicants can be in November and December. Early action applicants often get more aid for applying early, and early decision students must commit to going to that school, if accepted. Reissfelder applied via early action to six schools, without seeing most in person: Wentworth Institute of Technology and Emmanuel College in Boston; Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts; Roger Williams University in Providence, Rhode Island; the University of Maine in Orono; and the University of New England in Biddeford.

He has been accepted at four and is waiting to hear from the other two. He picked the schools he applied to, before the pandemic, based on the two areas he’s considering studying: architecture and marketing. He also picked a variety of locations, rural and urban, because he’s not sure yet what sort of setting will make the most sense for him. It’s a hard thing to determine without seeing a place and walking around, he said.

Reissfelder has driven past UNE “a couple hundred times” but decided that doing drive-by visits at the other schools he applied to would not be worth the effort or really tell him anything. He’s hoping that if COVID-19 cases go down and travel restrictions ease, he may be able to make physical visits in the spring and then decide on a college by May. Like many students, he’s also waiting to see what each school is offering for aid before making a decision.

Nicholas Reissfelder, a senior at Biddeford High School, applied to several colleges but has been unable to visit because of the pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“My mom and I had planned last spring to go see all these schools, then things shut down pretty quick,” said Reissfelder. “I don’t think I’d really get a feel for a place by just driving by.”

Stanley, the Cape Elizabeth student, applied early decision to Wellesley, but had considered about 10 colleges and was planning to visit many of them last spring before COVID-19 shut down campuses. She said the pandemic forced her to do “more research” online than she might have if she knew she was going to visit the colleges in person. She looked for schools with programs that interested her, including Spanish, biology and theater, and read a lot about the culture, community and ideology of each school. She thinks that was a good thing and helped lead her to Wellesley, which was not on her list initially.

DIFFERENT CHALLENGES

Most colleges, including those in Maine, responded to the pandemic by greatly expanding their online presence, offering scores of virtual campus tours and information sessions, including Zoom chats with enrolled students and virtual visits to high schools. University of Maine System schools also sent out financial aid award letters earlier this year – in December instead of mid-January at UMaine – to help students make their decisions, said Dan Demeritt, executive director of public affairs for the system. System officials are planning to launch an initiative with the Finance Authority of Maine and the Maine Department of Education to help high school students “stay on track” for college during the pandemic, with details to be announced Wednesday, Demeritt said.

Still, the pandemic has created myriad challenges for prospective Maine college students, based on what each is looking for in a school. Some may have started their searches before the pandemic hit and were able to tour some colleges, but as their search expanded, they couldn’t visit other colleges on their list. While students applying to Maine or New England colleges could do driving tours, they were not able to really get a sense of the place or people at each institution or visit facilities that are key to their interest of study or participation on athletic teams.

Kiley Matthews, a competitive swimmer from South Portland, has been accepted at four colleges around New England – St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont; Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire; Roger Williams in Rhode Island; and St. Joseph’s in Standish. She’s walked around St. Joseph’s and drove around the Keene State campus, but has not seen the others at all. Matthews has talked to swim coaches virtually at each school, but has not seen the pools or athletic facilities. Normally, as a swimmer, Matthews said she’d have made overnight visits to the schools and tested out the pools.

“To all swimmers, the feel of the water of each pool is really important,” said Matthews, 17.

Matthews said before she makes a decision, in the next month or so, she hopes to at least take a driving tour of St. Michael’s, which is about four hours away and the farthest from home on her list.

Nick Sutton of South Portland has applied to 10 colleges and hasn’t made visits to any. Photo by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Nick Sutton, who attended Baxter Academy in Portland and is now a senior at South Portland High School, thought at this point in his college application process, he’d be auditioning at colleges around the Northeast, in college auditoriums. He has applied to 10 colleges as a prospective vocal performance major and is required to audition as part of his application. The schools range geographically from the University of Maine to Syracuse University and Ithaca College in upstate New York. Not only has he not seen any of the schools in person, he has had to do all his required auditions virtually, from his home, instead of in an auditorium with professional audio equipment and specifically engineered acoustics.

Sutton, 17,  says he’s comfortable doing Zoom auditions, but he would like to see some campuses in person, because he would like to live somewhere with plenty of green space. His mother, Kristin Sutton, said the online auditions have added another layer of work, and stress, to all the other factors that go into applying to college, including trying to get the best financial aid package, writing essays and gathering recommendations.

A SENSE OF LOSS

For some students, not being able to take a “college road trip” meant they were missing out on one of the rituals of  transitioning from high school to college. Danielle Eid of Litchfield applied early decision to The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, without the benefit of a tour or visit, and was accepted. Her grandmother lives in the nearby town of Auburn, so she’s seen the campus in passing. But she has not walked it or toured it as a prospective student. She took a virtual tour, where she was able to see areas of campus and read descriptions by clicking on maps. She did similar virtual tours at some of the other schools she was considering – her list included Fordham University in New York City and Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut – but was disappointed not to have in-person experiences.

“People say that’s the fun part of applying to college, and that was taken away from our class,” said Eid, 18, a senior at Kents Hill School in Readfield.

All the ways the pandemic will impact prospective students and colleges likely won’t be known until final application and enrollment numbers are tallied. But even then, the impacts will likely be different at each college for a variety of reasons unique to that institution.

For example, while applications have been down at many colleges, they have increased at some. Overall first-year applications are up about 6 percent at the University of Southern Maine in Portland and Gorham.

At USM, out-of-state applications are up more than 26 percent over last year around this time, said Jared Cash, vice president for enrollment. He thinks some of the increase has come from the school’s out-of-state marketing efforts in the last few years, but thinks USM’s location and the pandemic might be factors as well. The Portland area’s real estate market is red hot and has been making news for attracting out-of-state buyers during the pandemic. Plus, some students might be looking at colleges closer to home as the pandemic continues, and a lot places in New England and New York are a half-day’s drive or less from USM. Or they’re looking for a place that was not as hard hit by the pandemic as some.

“It might be that people don’t want to get on a plane to go to college right now, and that they’ve looked at the (COVID case) maps, and for most of the year, Maine has been green,” said Cash.

Kiersten Bird, a high school senior from Salem, New Hampshire, has been accepted to USM and plans to attend, but has never visited the campus or the Portland area. She said she’s always loved Maine and was impressed with all she read about the area and the pictures she saw online. Bird, 17,  plans to study recreational therapy and was impressed with USM’s program. She likes the fact that USM is far enough from Salem – about two hours – so that she won’t be tempted to come home often, but can if she needs to. She also applied and was accepted at the University of New Hampshire and Temple University, in Philadelphia.

Dick Matthews, Kiley’s father, says the stress of picking a college without being able to tour a campus in person is an added challenge for the class of 2021, which has already been through so much this year. Many seniors have lost the ability to play sports, participate in drama productions or musical theater, gather with other seniors at assemblies or awards banquets, along with being denied the chance to tour colleges.

“I know last year’s seniors had it tough, but they were still in school for seven months before this hit,” said Matthews. “The seniors this year, I think, have it way worse.”

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