Some institutions are having record years, but many others are starting the year with 10 or 20 percent of students not there. And some have lost more.

For private colleges, this year has been among the most difficult ever in admissions. For those that aren’t nationally known (we’re leaving out the Ivies, Stanford University and similar institutions), admissions is always a challenge. In most states, public universities dominate press attention. For many, they define higher education, with their large size, big-time athletics and more. This year has been no exception. Think about how many stories you saw (including on this site) about the University of North Carolina’s reversal of its decision to open its Chapel Hill campus. While the big-time sports conferences do have private university members, most are public.

What about smaller private colleges?

A scan of private colleges suggests that they are welcoming some or all students to campuses, and they are hopeful that they will be able to avoid the embarrassing incidents (parties without social distancing or face masks) that have taken place at so many larger, public institutions. They have worked hard all summer long to meet their enrollment goals — or to get as close to full as possible. They have rules covering everything from how long parents can remain on campus to how frequently students will be tested.

The early indications reflect that colleges are dealing with different situations than normal this year. Some colleges have yield totals; others don’t. Some colleges are counting students who are studying remotely and others don’t.

Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said, “My members have shared that melt is growing higher than expected in August, as schools get closer to opening. Fear of COVID, anxiety about online education, international students with an inability to travel, and increased anxiety about costs has pushed more students to change course.”

Still, a number of private colleges are reporting successes.

Take Shenandoah University, in Virginia. As of Wednesday, the university had 532 committed freshmen (yield rate: 27 percent). Last year on this same date the college had 515 (yield rate: 30 percent). While the university expects to lose a few students at the beginning of the academic year, as it always does, it anticipates having its largest-ever freshman class.

Andy Woodall, assistant vice president for recruitment and admissions, said via email, “By the time we were forced to begin working remotely, we were already well on our way to executing our trial period of virtual visits, which meant we could use the knowledge gained for our virtual open houses and virtual admitted freshmen day. I doubt we used a tool set that was all that different from other admissions offices, but I think we may have been more familiar with those tools earlier than most.”

He said the admissions staff really stepped up. “The university has done an exceptional job of planning, executing and communicating throughout this crisis,” he said. “With move-in day being yesterday and today and throughout the summer at our in-person orientations, we’ve consistently heard from parents that they have been impressed with our communication, transparency and planning. That level of comfort has meant a ton to those families in solidifying their choice to choose SU.”

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