By TCR Editing Staff || Alex Pinsk, Gabby Goodwin, Ruby Van Dyk, Katherine Coble
Last week some potential college applicants received news that Franklin & Marshall had reopened its application period for the class of 2024 until May 15th, 2020. Amidst COVID-19, F&M’s admissions season looks unlike ever before. With students unable to visit the College, as well as the uncertainty of how the pandemic will affect the fall semester, many of the normal admissions practices have been obliged to transform. Dr. Alan Caniglia, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives & Acting Vice President for Finance and Administration pointed out that “[t]his is, perhaps, the most complicated admission season ever. For the first time in our lifetimes, high school students are thinking about a global pandemic while figuring out where to go to college.”
Although all college admissions are being affected by the pandemic, F&M appears to be one of the few institutions which has chosen to reopen its application window, making the move fairly unique. Comparable institutions such as Gettysburg College and Lehigh University have not reopened their application windows, according to student leaders and their official college websites. According to a recent article in The Washington Post, other institutions such as Ithaca College, Lewis and Clark College, and Macalester College have extended their deposit deadline of May 1st but have not reopened their application windows. By contrast, F&M has taken a different approach, reopening its application deadline until May 15th in pursuit of gaining more local students or those who live within an easy driving distance from campus. So, unless reopening the application window is occurring completely unpublicized at comparable institutions, it seems as though F&M is one of the few that has adopted the new policy.
Although this information regarding the reopening of the application has been sent out to some prospective students, it has not been publicized by the College on any of its various media platforms. The information also cannot be found on the admissions portion of F&M’s website, which still lists the regular decision deadline as January 15th, 2020. One independent high school college counselor told the The College Reporter that an advisee had received an email about a week ago from F&M announcing the reopening of the application window. This counselor said the move was not only unusual in the admissions world but could make F&M seem “desperate” (for applicants).
According to Don Saleh, Interim Vice President of Enrollment, the decision was geared towards students who live close to the college. “The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many students to rethink the distance from home factor.We know that there are very strong students who live within driving distance to Lancaster who did not apply to F&M. At the same time, there may be students who were admitted from more distant parts of the USA who are reconsidering their plans to travel far away to go to college.We are reacting to these changes in the preferences of college bound students and allowing more local students to consider F&M again.”
Dr. Barbara Altmann, President of the College, echoed Mr. Saleh’s sentiments adding “We know that in moments of major disruption, some students may change their minds about how far from home they want to travel to attend college. We’re reopening the application period so we can invite high school seniors and transfer students who live within an easy car ride of our campus, in case they want a superb education closer to home.” There may be questions about how effective this strategy will be, considering that roughly 31% of the class of 2023 came from Pennsylvania, according to official College statistics. An additional 33% of the class of 2023 comes from New Jersey/New York and 10% are from DC, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. When taken together, this indicates approximately 3/4 of the College’s typical domestic students are already within driving distance.
The administration continues to discuss financial implications for the College in the wake of COVID-19 as well as the ways in which it will affect the admissions process. This past Thursday, April 16th, a Webex presentation was shown to over 300 members of the faculty and professional staff, according to one member of FPS. This powerpoint highlighted potential scenarios for the College based on the trajectory and longevity of the virus and social distancing orders. The presentation was revealed to the Diplomatic Congress at a closed meeting later Thursday evening. President Altmann failed to respond to The College Reporter’s numerous requests to gain access to the presentation as well as a request for comment on the portion of this article which discusses the presentation.
Dip Con’s Executive Board explained that “President Altmann and VPFA Alan Caniglia presented on the College’s financial projections in light of COVID-19 to the Diplomatic Congress, in its capacity as the students’ representative governing body in the shared governance of the College.” They also noted that members of the Diplomatic Congress “were provided a draft PowerPoint with the request that it not be distributed” to the student body or any other party. The idea is that when this presentation is finalized, information about a forum held by Dip Con and Budget Priorities Committee will be released to students, according to Dip Con’s Executive Board.
That being said, those in attendance have provided insight into what was discussed during the presentation—in particular three scenarios in regard to what the fall semester might look like and how those scenarios might dictate the financial state of the college and retention rate. The following scenarios were presented: (1) the first scenario in which classes are back in session in the fall, (2) the second scenario in which classes are back in session in the fall but with a drop in attendance—particularly international student attendance, and (3) the third and most detrimental scenario in which F&M is online in the fall. This information was reported by attendees of the presentation.
Attendees also reported that 10% of F&M’s endowment, which was invested, was lost when the stock market crashed. To make up for the financial deficit, the College is considering following peer institutions by reducing salaries and implementing both permanent and temporary layoffs.
As the College remains closed in accordance with Pennsylvania State Law, the implications of this closure will have resounding effects on both prospective and current F&M students. For high school seniors looking to finalize their college decision, the inability to visit schools for tours and accepted students days is leaving many accepted applicants unsure of their decision. Many students use these on-campus visits to gauge their connection with the school and its community. As a result, this uncertainty has sparked a nationwide conversation about students’ plans for the upcoming school year. Some students are considering taking gap years, while others might be more inclined to choose a more “local college,” within this three hour driving radius. For current students of the College, the possibility of classes being held online in the fall might imply a large increase in students deciding to take a leave of absence. The current cost of tuition at F&M may not be worth it for some if the College is forced to remain online.
For international students, the waters navigating COVID-19 are much more tricky. As the College continues to push this population of students to return to their home countries amidst growing concerns over COVID-19, the ability for current F&M international students to return in the fall, as well as the ability for accepted international students to attend in the fall, are both pending at this point.
Eva Wang, a senior Executive Board member of F&M’s International Student Advisory Board, expressed her concerns in a statement:“The main challenge will be for incoming First-years on the visa application process because, during the epidemics, many embassies stopped their visa services. If students cannot get their visas to return to campus in fall, they can take next semester as a gap, meaning that their tuition will be refunded (I don’t know what will happen to their meal plans, housing fees, and student activity fees, which can be a proposal to the school)…the policy is updating constantly and it is hard to predict.”
F&M—like the majority of colleges and universities—will most likely see a drop in attendance in the fall for international students, both incoming and current. It seems probable that another consideration in reopening the application was the possibility that international student attendance for the class of 2024 is hard to predict. Despite these growing concerns, however, President Altmann seemed confident in F&M’s current admissions state prior to COVID-19. “We’re doing well building the new class for the fall. We had almost 9,000 applications this year, the second-highest number ever. And right now, the deposits from students committing to F&M are coming in at a pace that closely matches last year. But we can’t predict what will happen over the summer.”
The potential to lose a significant chunk of international students has particularly wide-ranging implications for Franklin & Marshall. Compared to other colleges of its size and caliber, F&M has significantly more international students per class. In a 2018 article for Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik reported that 23% of F&M’s latest class consists of non-domestic students. They are just part of the whole international community which makes up 19% of F&M’s total population according to the most recent statistics on College Board. These numbers are significantly higher than the amount of international students at comparable colleges such as Dickinson (13%), Lafayette (10%), Lehigh (9%), and Gettysburg (6%) – all according to the most recent statistics on College Board. As a result, F&M and other schools with high percentages of international students will be more heavily impacted by the inability of students to receive visas or travel internationally than schools with more domestic students.
This situation has become even more complex in light of the College’s financial situation. Last year, Inside Higher Ed reported that F&M was facing a 6% budget deficit—roughly $11 million dollars—and hoped to close that deficit within two years. This plan now seems virtually impossible to achieve in light of the cost of refunding students for room, board, and work-study payments during the spring 2020 semester. The potential loss of so many international students— who, as a result of being ineligible for federal student aid, disproportionately pay full tuition compared to the domestic student body—will only make this financial hardship worse. Although the majority of domestic students receive some form of financial aid, F&M’s total cost of attendance is $76,000 per year. The decision of one full-tuition student to not attend the College for their undergraduate degree results in a total loss of $300,000 over four years.
The repercussions of COVID-19 are thus not only emotional (as graduating seniors grapple with losing out on their final year) or logistical (as incoming first-years wait to see if they will actually be able to attend in the fall), but financial as well. The long-term future of the College relies on strategic management decisions that appropriately meet the public health needs of students with the long-term well-being of Franklin & Marshall. As President Altmann said in a statement, “The COVID-19 crisis has already been costly—for individuals, for families, for large and small businesses, and for nonprofit institutions like colleges and universities, including F&M. And that’s just one aspect of the hardships people are facing. Those financial losses could certainly climb considerably, particularly if social distancing continues for a prolonged period.”
As all colleges and universities undergo hardships in the face of COVID-19, F&M’s finances and future enrollment are, at this time, uncertain.
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