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College admissions in a pandemic year.

When the University released admissions decisions to applicants for the Class of 2024, on March 26, it was anybody’s guess what exactly the recipients of happy news were being invited to take part in.

Under the threat of COVID-19, Penn had already sent current students home to complete the semester online. The fall was a giant question mark. Would lecture halls be limited to 25 people at a time? Would freshmen be assigned to double- and triple-rooms in the Quad? Would sports go on? Would libraries open? Would classes move to Zoom? Would students return to campus at all?

The uncertainty would persist into June at least (when the Gazette went to press). Meanwhile, admitted applicants had until May 1 to accept or decline their admission offers. It’s hard to imagine a more fraught decision.

Yet when Penn’s dean of admissions, Eric J. Furda C’87, sat down at his computer on May 8, he was greeted with a remarkable sight. “If I’d just been in College Hall the whole time, and hadn’t read any news, and I just looked at the numbers for the incoming class, you wouldn’t think anything was going on outside,” he said. In an ordinary year, he’d expect 2,300 committed students by that point—and as of the first week in May, “everything was in line with projections.” That remained the case three weeks later. By all appearances, the Class of 2024 was shaping up to look much like its predecessors, with 2,400 freshmen from the usual (vast) spread of US states and other countries.

Yet several question marks still loomed, perhaps none larger than that posed by the June 5 deadline for students to request a “gap year” deferral. Such requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and Furda said that approvals typically require a compelling statement of what the petitioner proposes to do with the year. By the deadline, the admissions office had approved 99 requests—about 50 percent more than in any past year. Furda said that most of the requests cited familiar reasons—like compulsory military service for students in some countries—but several petitioners cited health risks related to COVID-19, such as asthma or other underlying medical conditions that make the disease more dangerous.

Furda also said that his office had been “utilizing the wait list” to a greater degree than in most recent years. “Some years we don’t go to it at all,” he said. “Some years we take 20 from the wait list, and some years a couple hundred.” This year comes in at the top of that range. “But our yield rate is holding right around 66 percent,” Furda added, referring to the percentage of admitted students who accept the offer to enroll. “Our high-water mark was 68 percent.” Students admitted from the wait list are not eligible to request gap years.

What options would enrolled students have to change their minds if summer brings news that the coming academic year will not resemble the residential collegiate experience that originally motivated them to apply?

“I think we have to take one case at a time,” Furda said, emphasizing how much remained unknown even apart from the University’s ultimate decisions about campus life in the fall. “Fifty states may have 50 different rules around travel,” he said. “Schools in Pennsylvania might be open but not schools in New Jersey, or vice versa. It might sound inauthentic when I say we have to take individual cases individually, but you really do. There’s going to be local decisions and state decisions, as well as federal and international decisions that are made—and they will not be evenly distributed.”

He hoped that summer would bring more clarity. “But at some point, we have to say, ‘This is what we’re offering, and we want you to be a part of it. And if you don’t want to be a part of it, well, you’re essentially turning down your spot in the class.’”

Students who do so would have to reapply for the following year, if they still wanted to attend Penn. But as Furda observed, declining a spot at Penn doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of what an 18-year-old aspiring to a four-year college education is going to do instead. He posited that, no matter what the coming academic year looks like, there’s a case to be made for this cohort to stay together.

“For these high school seniors that are just graduating, they are the COVID class,” he said. “There’s some value in staying together as a class. You’ve already had this shared experience, which is a bond from your high school class—although certainly not one you wanted. And the same thing will be true coming into college—and I’m not just talking about Penn. There’s also value to becoming part of this broader network of support.”

Families, he allowed, may be faced with hard decisions pitting their child’s health and welfare in tension with their educational prospects. “I’m talking as a dad now more than anything else,” he said, “and if you’re like, ‘My child is not getting on a plane,’ those are bigger issues.

“That being said, even if there is some virtual component [to instruction in the fall], there is some value to being part of this class—and also, what are the other options? What else are you going to do? By the time you get around to late August and September, are you going to be looking forward to being a part of something, whatever shape that takes? Or are you just going to sort of wait to see what else happens next?

“That question is larger than any of us,” he added. “It’s what does COVID testing look like? What does contact tracing look like? Are some of these early stages of a vaccine going to break through? But I don’t know how long in life you’re just going to sit around and wait for that next thing to happen, because you have absolutely no control over it.”

For those students who do come together at Penn in the fall—whatever “coming together” looks like—he had a message: “Being a part of this class has its merit and meaning.”—TP

After this issue went to press, the University announced that Eric J. Furda C’87 would be stepping down as dean of admissions, effective December 31. We’ll have more on Furda’s 12-year run leading Penn’s admissions office and his decision to join the college counseling team at William Penn Charter School (where his two children will both be enrolled) in an upcoming issue.

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