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COVID-19 pandemic complicates college dreams in Nevada

Updated July 22, 2021 - 10:53 am

Spring Valley High School senior Joseph Zabel was hoping to attend college in Reno next fall, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on his plans.

The 17-year-old wanted to visit the University of Nevada, Reno’s campus in-person to see what the school has to offer, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Zabel applied to UNLV. He was accepted and plans to study athletic training.

“Already, I was nervous, and with coronavirus, I don’t even know if I’m going on campus right now,” he said in late October, adding he would like to live in a dorm at UNLV. “It’s a lot of stress adding onto a stressful situation.”

Applying for college under normal circumstances is challenging and stressful enough, but the pandemic is adding a layer of uncertainty to the mix this fall for high school seniors and their parents.

“The college admissions process tends to be kind of fraught with anxiety in a good year,” said Kathleen Dambro, a counselor at Palo Verde High School in northwest Las Vegas. And this year, “I think the biggest stumbling block at this time is just the uncertainty.”

Because of the pandemic, many colleges and universities nationwide are relaxing at least some admissions requirements for fall 2021 such as not requiring SAT and ACT college entrance exam scores. Las Vegas-area high school counselors say many students are still making plans to further their education, but some may be considering staying closer to home or taking a year off after graduation.

Dambro recently visited senior government classes virtually to tell students about scholarship opportunities such as the Nevada Promise Scholarship, which covers mandatory tuition and fees for up to three years at a community college.

Dambro said she thinks that elicited a lot of excitement because “it’s something tangible” and helped students recognize it would be affordable to start at the College of Southern Nevada, a community college with three campuses in the Las Vegas Valley.

Looking closer to home

At Bishop Gorman High School, a private Catholic high school in Las Vegas, college counselor Ryan Pietranton said students are still pursuing the college application process as they normally would.

“I think many of them, however, are looking a little closer to home this year with the uncertainty of if schools are going to open in the fall,” he said.

Pietranton said he has also seen alumni transfer from out-of-state schools back to Nevada colleges and universities during the pandemic.

At Desert Pines High School in east Las Vegas, the majority of students pursuing higher education typically go to CSN, counselor Lashaun Limbrick said. In terms of where students are looking at attending college, “I don’t feel like the trends are changing dramatically.”

Plus, he added, “I don’t feel like students are deferring or delaying their college going,” but there’s a lot of uncertainty about what fall 2021 will look like.

Another challenge with the college application process: Financial information on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid may be skewed because even if a family had significant income in 2019, its situation this year may look extremely different if one or both parents lost a job, Pietranton said.

“Their financial situation — where they may not have received much need-based financial aid, if any, a year ago — may be qualified now for even Pell Grants,” he said. “Parents and students should not be embarrassed or afraid to appeal their financial aid award because there are going to be instances where despite what your taxes say last year, there’s been a huge change in circumstance.”

College entrance exams

Clark County School District juniors take the ACT — a statewide requirement — for free, which happened last school year before the switch to distance education in March. But this fall, options for students nationwide to take college entrance exams are limited due to the pandemic, UNLV’s Executive Director of Admissions Kris Shay said.

At Desert Pines High, “a lot of students who want to retake ACT for a higher score aren’t able to,” Limbrick said.

Without being able to take the SAT or ACT this fall at school district testing sites, some CCSD seniors — and even students from as far away as California — signed up to take tests at Faith Lutheran Middle School and High School in Summerlin.

More than 2,600 students took the test, school counselor John Chilman said in an email to the Review-Journal. Fewer than 300 were Faith Lutheran students.

UNLV doesn’t require college entrance exam scores for admissions but does for merit-based scholarships. But the test score requirement for scholarships will be waived for students applying for the fall 2021 semester.

As a result, the university is reassessing how to award merit-based scholarships, Shay said.

Without using entrance exams, “that’s causing the colleges to look differently at how they’re awarding scholarships,” said Dambro, from Palo Verde High.

Now, they’re focusing on more holistic factors such as a student’s essays and community involvement, she said. “I’m trying to look at the bright side of all of this in that some things have changed for the good.”

Typically, in order to be admitted to UNLV, a student must have a 3.0 or higher core high school GPA, a 22 on the ACT or 1120 on the SAT.

“It’s already giving them some flexibility, which is working really well for us,” Shay said.

UNR also doesn’t require standardized test scores for admissions but may use SAT or ACT scores for first-year course placements, according to its website.

At the College of Southern Nevada, the admissions process hasn’t changed due to the pandemic and the college has open enrollment. Applications are welcomed on an ongoing basis.

Nevada State College in Henderson isn’t changing its admissions requirements for fall 2021. College entrance exam scores aren’t required, but are used for English and math course placements.

A student who doesn’t meet minimum requirements can appeal to an admissions review committee that can take into account if they’ve been impacted by the pandemic, said Andrea Martin, director of admissions and recruitment. “With that, I want to say that we’ll help them in any way we possibly can. I think we’re all trying to work this through together.”

College visits

College representatives aren’t visiting Clark County School District campuses in-person this fall as in years past since students are attending school via fully distance education, but are meeting with students via video conferencing.

And UNLV, CSN and Nevada State College aren’t offering in-person visits this fall on their campuses but are using virtual platforms instead to connect with students.

UNR offers in-person tours, but the last one through its Nevada Bound campus visit program is slated for Nov. 20.

UNLV has a digital virtual walking tour and information sessions. Shay said she hopes the university will be able to host small group in-person tours this spring.

She said the hybrid approach to recruitment — with in-person and virtual options for students — will be here to stay even after the pandemic, and she’s excited about that.

With virtual options, Pietranton said, “in a way, it’s almost created more of an opportunity for colleges to interact with our students because colleges that typically don’t physically travel here have been able to interact with our students.”

“However, due to Zoom and Google Meet fatigue, I think sometimes students aren’t as engaged in those as we’d like.”

In October and November, there are typically about three colleges or universities with a virtual meeting each day for Bishop Gorman students. The most popular schools among the school’s students — including University of San Diego, University of Arizona and the University of California system — often have 30 or more students participate, while lesser schools may not have any sign up.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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