Selective Colleges Get Creative as Pandemic Compounds Competitive Application Process


DES MOINES, Iowa — The stress is always high for high school seniors applying to colleges this time of year, but the pandemic is adding another layer of competition.

“Throughout this application process, I’ve learned a lot of patience,” said Elizabeth Saunders, who is a senior and student body president at Des Moines Roosevelt High School. Saunders has applied to about a dozen schools. She said, “I’m definitely looking at schools that are more academically selective.”

The pandemic is impacting colleges and universities with high standards and low acceptance rates in unprecedented ways. “We have seen a surge in applications at Grinnell like many selective colleges across the country,” said Joe Bagnoli, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Grinnell College.

USA Today cites Grinnell College as being Iowa’s most selective school with an acceptance rate of just over 24%. Bagnoli says that surge in applications is national for similarly selective schools. “We adopted a test optional admissions policy recognizing that many of our applicants would be unable to have an ACT or an SAT test this year,” said Bagnoli.

For talented seniors like Saunders, that injects more competition into the process. She is still awaiting results from over 60% of the schools she applied to. “The main way that has impacted me is most of those decisions have been delayed. Where you usually got your decisions mid-March, a lot are now late March, early April which is frustrating but I understand,” said Saunders.

The class of 2021 is also competing against seniors from 2020 who chose to wait on attending college during the pandemic. “Actually when we offered admission to last year’s seniors, 54 of them at Grinnell decided they would wait until this coming fall to enroll,” said Bagnoli.

Grinnell saw this problem coming and has a plan to help. Bagnoli said, “We’ve reduced the target size of the class of transfer students and increased the target size for first year students in order to accommodate the size of the students graduating from high school this year.”

Despite the worries, Saunders is staying positive. “Knowing there is light at the end of the tunnel and especially at this point there isn’t anything I can do to sway if I get into a school,” said Saunders.

While the pandemic is keeping many inside, schools like Grinnell College must now get creative with keeping potential students inside their state’s borders. Bagnoli said, “Students from Iowa don’t need to leave Iowa to get a world class education. They can do that right here at Grinnell.”

Grinnell College is clearing way for 450 first-time students in the fall of 2021. They had just 396 first-year students enroll in the fall of 2020.


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