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Charleston-area colleges see mixed interest levels as application season nears an end

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Citadel cadets walk along Jenkins Avenue through the campus on Aug. 5, 2020, in Charleston. The military school has seen a drop in applications from 2020 but an increase in the number of students accepted and deposits paid for the incoming class. File/Gavin McIntyre/Staff

With a little less than a month left in the school year, local colleges and universities are starting to see the pandemic’s impact on interest in higher education.

Since the pandemic began, the College of Charleston, The Citadel and Trident Technical College have had to move most of their recruitment efforts into a virtual format with a hampered ability to win over students via tours, overnight stays and high school visits.

The end result is mixed. Some colleges are seeing more applicants than ever, while others are experiencing a downward turn.

With over 19,000 applications completed as of April 9, interest in the College of Charleston is higher than both the 2019 and 2020 school years.

The increase in applicants follows a trend the college has been able to maintain throughout the pandemic. Amy Takayama-Perez, vice president of enrollment planning, said the increasing number of applicants is a reflection of the college’s commitment to “meet students where they’re at.”

“The College of Charleston has done a phenomenal job ... whether it was virtual high school visits, virtual one-on-ones or, in a very safe way, being able to open campus tours and visitations in August,” she said.

The college had to adjust its recruitment messaging for the pandemic. While students remain invested in campus culture and course offerings, colleges have had to show students their commitment to providing a safe environment. Students have until May 1 to make a final decision at the college, and around 2,300 will be enrolled. 

Defining success

Although the number of applicants is a marker of success, some schools are more focused on how many students actually enroll.

At The Citadel, a public military college, applications as of April 12 were at 2,489, which is down 4.1 percent from 2020 and 12.4 percent from 2019. Kelly Brennan, associate provost for enrollment management, said the drop in applicants likely has to do with more selective seniors.

“Some students are applying to fewer schools,” she said. “We think our population in particular is a little like that. They’re doing all of their research on the front end and then applying.”

The college also wasn’t able to do typical in-person events such as the pre-knob overnight visits in which prospective students are able to visit the college overnight and get a sense of the cadet lifestyle. Instead the college has done smaller in-person tours and virtual info sessions.

While the number of applications The Citadel has received is down, the number of acceptances and deposits have both increased, with the latter at 735, an increase of 14.5 percent from 2020. The college is able to be more selective with who it admits — the goal for the incoming class is 750 — Brennan isn’t worried about the drop in applications.

At Trident Tech in North Charleston, students can apply and are admitted to the school throughout the year. As of April 12, the college received 1,693 applications, which was behind pace for fall 2021 classes by about 375 applications. The number of summer applications as of April 12 was 1,536, down 1,368 from last year. However, because the college is a two-year institution, students sometimes enroll as late as the first day of class.

Trident Tech’s enrollment is highly impacted by trends in employment and the economy. Tim Martin, director of admissions at the college, said that while people normally enroll when they lose a job, that didn’t happen this year.

“Normally when people are laid off, they run to education,” he said. “That didn’t happen as much with the pandemic; it was a little bit of an interesting phenomenon.”

The college has the luxury of admitting all of those who apply so the numbers could change as time goes on. 

Martin said that the admissions department is optimistic that more people will apply as things open up more. The college has been directing its efforts toward virtual tours and events and is looking forward to hopefully having in-person recruiting days in the future.

A new normal

Anyone working in college admissions can attest that the pandemic has created a shift in priorities and recruitment strategies across the nation.

Both The Citadel and College of Charleston did not require ACT or SAT scores to be included in applications this year, which is a change that Brennan sees growing into a trend.

“We’ve never been a ‘it’s this test score or nothing’ kind of school. We have a little bit more holistic admissions,” she said. “We want to know your leadership. We want to know your passion and we want to make sure transcript-wise that you’re prepared to go to college.”

Takayama-Perez said the pandemic has forced admissions directors to reexamine their entire profession. The students coming into college have had the unique experience of finishing high school in a pandemic, with some taking virtual classes and others being able to see their teachers in person. Those students have different priorities than the freshman in 2019.

“If this has taught us anything, the next generation of students, they have grit, they’re resilient,” Takayama-Perez said. “You’re seeing lots of national associations and college admissions professionals taking a look at their processes and seeing how can we identify more talented students to make sure that we’re being accessible to students.”

Follow Libby Stanford on Twitter @libbystanford.

Libby Stanford covers education at The Post and Courier. A Colorado native, she joined The Post and Courier from the Summit Daily News in Summit County, Colorado. She graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in journalism and Spanish.

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