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Opinion: Incoming freshmen, don't panic. Colleges will support you

Dawn Medley

Labor Day weekend 2005 was one the most difficult and challenging of my life.  As the chief enrollment officer at the University of Arkansas, I had been empowered to make whatever decisions I needed to in light of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding in New Orleans. 

I had strangers sleep in my home, created scholarships with a phone call, and admitted students to the university on their word and good faith. I thought that was the crisis in higher education that would define my career.

Enter COVID-19.  

Today, my entire enrollment management division is working remotely as is 95% of our university. I spend my days at a laptop, with headphones, and managing in a time unlike any other. First we focused on making sure that our current students had their needs met. For some, they went home. For others, we are their home.

Now we are taking events designed around the “in person experience” and turning them into “experiences for the person.” Our faculty are moving mountains to take all of their experience and plans for coursework and distill it into educational, engaging and electronic forms.  

What changes happen to college plans for a high school student during these difficult times? The answer is everything and nothing at all.

Many will miss senior proms, graduations and we understand that families and students are uncertain in this time. Colleges all over the U.S. are open and ready to help students navigate these rapidly changing landscapes as they abruptly end their senior years and look to the future. While it is true that we don’t know what fall classes will look like on college campuses, one thing we know is that learning will continue.  

Parents and students, higher education institutions will support you. No, we don’t have all the answers yet because the questions and landscape change daily, but we are adapting rapidly. In the last week, higher education professionals have pivoted to virtual advising.

Wayne State University Old Main building in Detroit

At Wayne State University, we’re using our AI chatbot “W” to answer simple questions for incoming WSU students and have expanded our efforts with virtual gatherings where social distancing isn’t an issue.  

As far as making the college decision choice, institutions understand that some students and families are taking deep breaths and pauses in the college selection process, while others are forging ahead with plans. Schools will be supportive and nimble for each individual student and their family. We’ll figure it out together and rest assured the last thing any institution would ever want is for a student to feel pressured to make a choice with their education in which they didn’t feel 100% confident. 

In the meantime:

►If you have to take summer school to complete high school, colleges will adapt and support you. 

►If you need to figure out financial aid, any college financial aid office can help you no matter where you intend to enroll.  

►If your family income changes, financial aid offices can make aid adjustments with you.

►If your gap year fell through, universities can still admit you.

►If you are waiting to take a standardized test and now you can’t, there will still be a path to college.

►If you need to wait to deposit, colleges will likely accommodate you. Many, including WSU, have pushed our deposit deadline to June 1 for students.  

►If you are worried about online or virtual classes, institutions will support you.

►If you haven’t visited campus, your college likely has a virtual tour or will soon.

►If you just need to talk to someone, schools will be accommodating and supportive.

And if you just want to know that we’ll all get through this, I can assure you: We will.  

Dawn Medley is the associate vice president of enrollment management at Wayne State University.