By Sophie Hills

In the throes of social distancing, the Principia College admissions department has had to adapt fast in this prime season for prospective student visits.

April is typically the month during which most prospective students make their final decision, said Brett Grimmer, interim admissions director, but there’s a pause in this moment of global uncertainty and “I think that’s just the biggest-felt impact right now…hesitation to make a decision. And it’s understandable.”

So if students can’t come to campus, Principia is taking the campus to the students as one of its efforts to answer questions and talk them through their concerns. Admissions broadcast an informal live campus tour online yesterday, with Nicole Gervais assistant director of recruiting spinning across campus in an electric cart with her dog Winston and even doing the backward tour-guide walk at crucial stops.

Her enthusiasm for Principia makes it “really easy to remember why we all believe in it, too,” said Brooke Engel, winter of 2020 graduate and post graduate teaching intern for the Center for Teaching and Learning. “That’s why I tuned in.”

The video went live yesterday at 5 p.m. CDT, ending with 246 live views. But it was saved to the Principia College Facebook page as well as the admission department’s web page. Views of the 12-minute tour featuring the campus in pristine spring bloom had nearly tripled views to 694 by this article’s posting.

Because of social distancing, no faculty or students were able to be involved in the virtual tour. Instead, many are creating their own short videos to be compiled and posted on the admissions website in coming weeks – – though, in the virtual tour, Interim President John Williams unexpectedly emerged from Clara McNabb and is seen waving from the steps at a distance.

All of the admissions department work is being done under social distancing. Admissions counselors are reaching out to the high school seniors in their zones who had planned to visit but were unable to, said Gervais. “We’ve reached out to those students … to set up the opportunity to talk with professors.”

Three visiting weekends were canceled, but on the admissions web page there is now an option to sign up for a virtual visit, said Gervais. Students are able to request to speak with professors, coaches, current students, and other community members who represent various interests.

A benefit of virtual tours, said Gervais, is that now prospective students can join any class, any day online, and not just on Fridays, the day they would be present on campus for in-person visiting weekends.

Because Covid-19 has halted trips, the admission counselors can dedicate their time wholly to prospective students and professional development.

Taking the time to build personal relationships with prospective students is one strength of Principia’s admissions department, said Gervais. “It’s something that just makes us a little bit more unique, because we aren’t drawing from thousands and thousands of kids… we’re drawing from the Christian Science group. So that relationship is really growing and really great.”

Recent higher education studies have shown that increasing numbers of students are opting to go to community college for a year, rather than pay for a year of education at a four-year institution that might still be on virus lockdown and conducting classes remotely, said Gervais.

One benefit to Principia created by the tight Christian Science community of camps and Discovery Bound youth programs is that many incoming freshmen know each other. “If you already have a community here,” said Gervais, you might be more inclined to commit to a four-year institution not knowing whether or not their fall semester will be in-person or virtual.

In addition to considering community college, one survey suggested that 25% of students are considering a gap year, said Grimmer.

“We aren’t trying to push [prospective students] into anything, [we’re] just trying to be here to support them… Our focus is answering questions and talking them through their concerns, and just being there to add that support.”

Katie Schiele, director of financial aid, is working closely with admissions counsellors to have them reach out to prospective students and tell them about financial aid options and other support. She has also sent emails to prospective families and students directly from her office, she said.

Overall, the financial aid office is taking steps to remain updated about students’ and their families’ financial situations as the fall approaches. “Based on the situation going on this year we know that things are tough for families and that some families have lost their employment, and some students have, as well, so we’re working hard to do the best that we can on our end to provide aid packages that will help them be here and meet their need,” said Schiele.

“We’re collecting the same information that we do each year,” said Schiele, “however we’re also letting families email us or talk to us about any changes in their financial situation, or let us know about their concerns, so that we can take then into consideration when we’re awarding financial aid packages.”

Even before the pandemic, college enrollment nationwide was dropping. The admissions department has has been working since last August with educational consultant Jay Goff, who has been working with Principia to build an enrollment plan for the next five years, said Grimmer. According to the report Goff gave the admissions department, national enrollment numbers for the fall dropped 10-12% as of last week.

“Every couple weeks we’re assessing where we are and revising projections and trying to stay on top of it,” said Grimmer.

All SAT, ACT, and TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) testing has been canceled until at least June, said Grimmer. Some students were hoping to retake tests to raise their scores to meet Principia’s standard or to qualify for a better scholarship, and there are a few that haven’t taken it.

“We’re looking into the possibility of making a proposal to the faculty regarding a temporary admissions policy of test optional,” said Grimmer, who is working with college leadership regarding a proposal to the faculty senate, which governs the admissions criteria of the college, so they will have to approve the temporary changes.

At least 25 colleges and universities have moved to test-optional policies in the last few weeks, said Grimmer.

“I think the biggest impact is probably just the uncertainty and the anxiety about how things are still evolving, and what the future impacts are going to be from this, and how long it’s going to go on,” said Grimmer.

An international application for admission takes longer than a domestic application, said Grimmer, because of the added paperwork, testing, and planning. “Most of the people we had looking at this fall were already well on their way.”

Most prospective international students’ documentation and applications are mostly completed, so the concerns are travel and visas.

•Featured photo is a Facebook screen grab of Nicole Gervais on a virtual campus tour.