WAPAKONETA — Kyira Knous has heard the advice for years: You’ll know when you’ve selected the right college.
“We’ve been told since eighth grade, once you step on the campus that you’re meant to be, you’ll be sure,” said Knous, a junior at Wapakoneta High School. “I haven’t had that chance.”
Most area students haven’t. COVID-19 knocked out college tours for most of the past year, challenging students, guidance counselors and admissions advisors. They’re trying to make a meaningful connection without much in-person contact.
“From the kids I’ve talked to, they say, ‘We could go here; we couldn’t go there,’” said Mark Koch, a guidance counselor at Wapakoneta. “They surely get a better feel on a tour than from a virtual tour or just talking to someone by phone who’s a counselor at a university.”
Despite these obstacles, area colleges said they’re seeing increased interest in attending closer to home.
“We’re following safety protocols, but we still do college in the way families and students expect it to be,” said Robin Bowlus, Bluffton University’s vice president of advancement and enrollment management. “It’s been a game-changer. For small, private colleges, we’ve had a rebirth and a renewal in the midst of the pandemic.”
Not face to face
Colleges visiting Kalida High School has become as much a part of autumn as watching the leaves turn color. In a normal year, 15 to 20 colleges will stop in to greet prospective students and make an impression.
Safety decisions closed that door tight in the fall, said Jeff Clement, the guidance counselor at Kalida. They didn’t allow visitors earlier in the year, although now they’ve brought in four to five schools.
Wapakoneta’s Knous hopes to attend Ohio State-Lima to study social work, get her master’s degree and open up her own private mental health practice someday. She acknowledged the virus made her focus closer to home, but the lack of in-person visits hurts.
“It doesn’t really allow us to get a feel for campus life,” Knous said. “It kind of limits the different areas we get to see, because they obviously can’t interrupt classes and let us go in there to see.”
Madi Sams, a junior at Wapakoneta who hopes to become a dentist, feels that stress as she ponders her future. She hopes to attend college in South Carolina.
“I’m really just trying to find what I think would best fit me personally,” she said. “… You see what they post on social media. That’s nothing like seeing it in person, what you’re actually going to see on campus or in the classes. I think it’s just more stress added to our junior year.”
In the absence of in-person tours, colleges have been forced to switch to virtual tours, said Jordane Dues, a guidance counselor at Lima Senior High School with six years of experience.
“I’m always telling the students to call the admissions office and explore the website,” she said. “All of them do the virtual tours. It’s really great.”
It seems to drive most students toward schools that Kalida students traditionally attend, such as Bowling Green, Ohio State-Lima, Rhodes State and Toledo.
“I think with our kids, they’re going to schools that have always been popular here,” he said. “It’s from word of mouth or a sibling or cousins there. They’re more familiar with them, even if they haven’t been on the campus.”
Getting on campus
That inability to see visitors was just as true on the colleges’ side. Locally, Rhodes State College doesn’t allow in-person visits yet. Ohio State-Lima just received approval two weeks ago to begin some in-person visits.
The University of Northwestern Ohio resumed in-person visits in July 2020. Ohio Northern University allowed them in May 2020, as did Bluffton University.
“We partially attribute our successes to the fact we did allow on-campus visitors,” said ONU’s Bill Eilola, the vice president for enrollment management, whose campus saw its number of applications increase 18% over last year, with accepted students increasing 30%. “There was a really strong appetite from prospective students for that. They want to make good decisions, and part of that is being on the campus.”
That’s something appealing to students thinking about the Ohio State-Lima campus, said Kristina Healey, the director of enrollment services there. Some prospective students admitted to driving around the parking lots on the campus on the east side of Lima, just to get a sense of what it’s like to attend.
“Students have not been able to do the junior and senior year visits as a typical college-bound student would,” she said. “That’s one of the main things we’re hearing from students, a gratefulness to come to campus.”
An uptick locally
Most area colleges acknowledged they’re seeing more interest in their schools. They’re hesitant to attribute it to coronavirus concerns, though.
Ohio State-Lima’s applications and admissions are up 40% to 50% compared to early 2020, before the pandemic hit. Bluffton’s numbers are up 21% for applications and 52% for accepted. Ohio Northern’s applications went up 18%, with a 30% increase in acceptances.
Rhodes State saw applications up 20% for new students. Chad Teman, director of admissions, credited the school’s switch to a “success navigator,” a one-stop point of contact who can help with anything from recruiting to scholarships to registering for your first-term classes.
“It’s really helped having that single person,” Teman said. “We see so many students who determine Rhodes State is the choice for them, and it’s available locally and combined with the lower cost here.”
UNOH has “relatively flat” application numbers, although the school is unique in that there could be four to eight different times to start their curriculum, said Tony Azzarello, director of admissions for the colleges of business, health professions and occupational professions.
“Students and families who may have put a hold on starting college during the height of the pandemic are now looking to come to campus this academic year,” Azzarello wrote via email. “… Where we saw COVID impact fall applicants in 2020, we are seeing increases in the spring of 2021 and also for the fall of 2021.”
The inability to see people face to face forced everyone to become more technologically savvy. That’s no different for guiding people through the college process.
Kim Metz, a guidance counselor at Wapakoneta, noticed the honest responses of what college-bound students wanted out of college.
“For some students, they’re a little bit shy about looking people in the eye and having those conversations,” Metz said. “This is going to allow for them to continue to keep that different line of communication.”
It’s an adjustment worth making, said DeLynn Epperly, a guidance counselor at Wapakoneta.
“It’s their world,” she said. “Where in the past we’ve kind of forced them to be a part of our world and how we do things — the old-fashioned listening to announcements, following along with things through an email — now we’re starting to send text reminders to them. I foresee that sticking.”
That’s been beneficial at Rhodes State, Teman said, and will remain part of the tool bag after the pandemic ends. Zoom calls and text messages have found their way into the process.
“We’re starting to see students understand how the new process works, and they like it,” he said.
UNOH plans to hold onto its virtual orientation programs too.
“With students from nearly all 50 states, sometimes it is difficult for a family to come to campus for orientation, then six to eight weeks later come back for move-ins,” Azzarello said. “This virtual option could save families time and money while still getting the same important information prior to attending classes.”