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In pandemic pause, local colleges adjust and still woo new students

The teaching winery at the FLCC Viticulture and Wine Center in Geneva. FLCC and other local schools are adjusting to the new realities as they recruit students and prepare for the next academic year. (File photo supplied by FLCC)
The teaching winery at the FLCC Viticulture and Wine Center in Geneva. FLCC and other local schools are adjusting to the new realities as they recruit students and prepare for the next academic year. (File photo supplied by FLCC)

Normally, April would be the month when high school seniors are making last-minute visits to Rochester-area colleges, trying to decide which school that accepted them they will attend in the fall. Juniors might use their April break to start their college search. 

But not this year. Not with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Schools are instead inviting accepted students to visit their web pages, take virtual campus tours, meet current students and officials on Zoom, and make a decision without setting foot on campus. In fact, chartered buses that normally bring students from the New York City area to visit Nazareth College and Finger Lakes Community College have been canceled, potentially resulting in fewer students from the Big Apple attending those schools in the fall. 

And many colleges are sharing their uncertainty about whether the incoming class will attend classes in person in the fall, as that’s still up in the air depending on the path of the pandemic. Colleges in the State University of New York system are waiting for direction from Albany. 

From community colleges to research universities, local institutions of higher education are juggling student decisions, extra costs of operating remotely, families hesitant to start or complete the college choice process because of their economic uncertainty, and what seems like daily news and changes on the pandemic scene. 

Several local schools, including the region’s largest employer, the University of Rochester, have frozen hiring to some extent, and instituted pay freezes because of the economic impacts of the pandemic. 

After moving spring semester classes online in the middle of the semester, most colleges have also announced summer sessions will be online, too. Schools report they are planning for multiple scenarios for the fall semester.  

The lighted sign on MCC's downtown campus. Like other area colleges and universities, MCC has had to make major adjustments to cope with the pandemic. (photo courtesy of MCC).
The lighted sign on MCC’s downtown campus. Like other area colleges and universities, MCC has had to make major adjustments to cope with the pandemic. (photo courtesy of MCC).

To try to reduce stress for prospective families, some colleges have delayed the traditional May 1 deadline for students to commit to June 1. 

 “Essentially, we want to give families the opportunity to think through their decisions and make sure they’re the best fit for them. In some cases, people need more time to make that decision because of the uncertainty that exists,” said John Mordaci, assistant vice president of admissions at Nazareth College.

The uncertainty may not lay with the college, but with the family’s circumstances. Suddenly without a job, some parents are having to rewrite their children’s financial documents, and are appealing financial aid offers made just a few weeks ago when their income looked very different. Hobart and William Smith Colleges said about 15 percent more financial appeals have been filed this year than in a typical year. 

While Monroe Community College is more affordable than most schools, the college is trying to let students know that even if they apply at the last minute — common with rolling admissions at community colleges — and even if they don’t have internet access at home, college staff are available to help them negotiate the financial aid process. 

Christine Casalinuovo-Adams, MCC’s associate vice president for enrollment management,  said there may be an uptick in enrollment for the fall because of changing financial circumstances for families who didn’t have MCC at the top of their lists until now. 

“Their number one choice is still alive and the pathway to get there is through MCC,” she said, noting MCC students have gone on to Yale and Cornell universities, as well as prestigious state schools.

Some other schools say it’s too early to predict whether their enrollment will differ in the coming year from the previous year. 

“Colleges and universities are a really important part of our economy, particularly here in Rochester, and so we’re all doing the best we can to make sure we reach our enrollment goals,” said Nazareth’s Mordaci. 

Finger Lakes Community College moved all registration for classes online for the first time this spring. “We’re seeing the same volume of activity in our new space,” said Matthew Stever, director of admissions. 

Nazareth enlisted a company to survey prospective students about how their decision-making process might have changed because of the pandemic. 

“What we’ve found is that most students who have already made their decision to attend a certain school are sticking with that decision,” Mordaci said. On the other hand, students who haven’t set foot on a particular school’s campus yet are unlikely to commit to that college.

John Young, vice president and dean of admissions at Hobart and William Smith (HWS), said that school is running about 10 percent ahead in deposits from accepted students, but is lagging in rejections.  He and other counselors agreed that undecided students are taking longer to make a decision. 

Students on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College. The pandemic is playing havoc with the admissions timeline for many local colleges. (File photo supplied by Roberts Wesleyan)
Students on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College. The pandemic is playing havoc with the admissions timeline for many local colleges. (File photo supplied by Roberts Wesleyan)

April is the month where most schools roll out the red carpet to either welcome those who’ve already committed or to woo those who are still on the fence. Accepted students days can be lavish affairs with catered meals, chances to meet college presidents and deans, tours of dorms and other facilities, meetups with current students and student groups, parent information sessions, swag, and perhaps even a chance to sit in on a class. 

“Without those events, it’s been a bigger challenge this year,” Mordaci said. 

Many schools report taking unusual steps in hopes of a full house in August or September, from calling every accepted student, to creating new virtual campus tours, webinars and special-topic zoom seminars that will help them make up their minds.

We had to pivot pretty quickly,” said HWS’ Young. In some cases, colleges repackaged digital information they already had in an easier-to-find format online. In other cases, they created new features online. HWS created new videos using some of the 125 students still on campus.  

University of Rochester has several videos for prospective students, but one is clearly dated because it includes an interview with a dean who passed away in 2018. Current-day deans, though, are featured in weekly videos made available to the university community in which they read favorite works. 

Rochester Institute of Technology has a virtual tour with the feel of a video game featuring a real student tour guide who comes and goes, something like an avatar. It’s not surprising from a university with state-of-the-art video game design facilities. RIT also announced on Wednesday freezes on hiring and pay, some pay cuts and furloughs, as well as halting construction projects through the summer.

Prospective students at Nazareth College usually meet the college president at accepted students day events. This year they will virtually meet President Daan Braveman, who will step down in June, and incoming President Elizabeth Paul during an online event. 

Even with these online tools, college admission counselors say there’s no substitute for an in-person visit. Many of today’s college applicants have come to expect they’ll visit nearly every college they apply to before they apply, and make second visits after they receive acceptance notifications. 

Young said when he started his career, about 25 percent of students arrived for classes each fall without having visited previously. Now attending the college without a prior visit is rare, except for one group: foreign students. 

So Young invited Gizem Hussain from Pakistan, a member of HWS’s Class of 2021,  to share with accepted students how she settled on a college from abroad.

In her letter to prospective students, Hussain wrote that she searched the college’s website, but also connected with social media accounts and searched out videos that could give her more of a feel for the campus. She checked out course listings to see what classes would be offered in her major. 

“If there is a silver lining to this virtual, rather than in-person, experience, I can promise you that the moment you do step foot on the campus of your choice, you will experience something magical. There is an unmatched, indescribable excitement of physically seeing a world that you had only associated with images and videos on a screen for the first time,” she wrote. 

While MCC is patting itself on the back for being an early adopter of online instruction and processes — it has had paperless registration and course selection for 15 years — others are getting into that game for the very first time. 

This is going to force a lot of schools to do things a lot differently and some of these methods are going to stick,” Stever said.

Other lasting effects of this time might be the economic impact on campus workforces and in families rejiggering their comfort level with having their students go far away from home to attend college. 

Locally, UR, St. John Fisher College, Roberts Wesleyan College have all announced hiring freezes of some sort. SUNY Brockport said it is reviewing every unfilled position to determine whether replacements should be hired at this time. RIT reported it is in meetings on the subject.  

MCC was already reducing staff through a voluntary separation plan before the pandemic hit.

Colleges are also seeing signs similar to the period after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when families’ decided to send students to college closer to home rather than risk being separated by many miles during uncertain times. 

“Last year our freshman class came from 29 states,” Mordaci said at Nazareth. “We don’t expect that will be the same this year, based on the circumstances. We had to cancel a bus trip we normally do from NYC.  We feel that’s going to impact us.”

“Families might not be as willing to go as far” once again, Stever said. 

But as with all things pandemic, predictions can be mercurial. 

Stever said FLCC’s reach has expanded because more information is online now, making it more accessible now to non-traditional age prospective students who may want to retool. 

HWS saw increased enrollment after 911 from urban areas.

I wonder if we might see the same things here,” Young said. “It’s much easier to pay attention to social distancing on a campus like ours.  It will be interesting to see how this shakes out.”

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FLCC offers debt forgiveness to entice students’ return

In an effort to help students who have dropped out for financial reasons, Finger Lakes Community College is introducing a debt forgiveness plan to help them complete their degrees.

The “Return to Finish” program would push off any unpaid college bills until after the returning student has graduated and erase up to $1,200 in charges once graduation happens.

“We know that many of our students face multiple challenges, from medical and family issues to emergency expenses. Sometimes these issues become overwhelming and lead them to withdraw from college,” said Matthew Stever, FLCC director of admissions. “This program allows students to come back with a way to manage their past debt.”

Return to Finish only deals with college bills – not any educational loans the student might have taken out to help pay for college. Bills that already have been turned over to a collection agency also would not be eligible.

The college is aiming to help students who are unable to register for classes because of an outstanding balance. In some cases, students are just a few classes away from completing a degree, helping them achieve higher earnings.

“Just a few more classes might make all the difference in giving someone financial stability,” Stever said. Applicants are asked to meet with a representative of the college’s One Stop Center before filling out an application.

Former students have until Jan. 8 to enroll in the program. More information is available online at

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