SHERIDAN — For most students, applying for college includes researching financial aid opportunities, writing college admissions essays, taking standardized tests and, in a non-pandemic, visiting college campuses.
COVID-19 and its worldwide effects have added another level of stress to the process, but Wyoming high school and college officials have created virtual opportunities they hope will help students across the state.
“It’s exciting to see how the university and the community colleges have shifted and flexed their processes and interactions to be the support needed for students right now,” said Kyle Moore, who serves as the associate vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Wyoming.
Jenna Mavrakis with the Sheridan High School College Connection Center said the biggest challenge for this year's seniors has been the inability to interact with college admissions offices in person through campus visits or admissions representative visits to SHS.
“However, many colleges have set up virtual tours, chats and Zoom meeting access through their websites,” she said.
In November, school counselors put on a "College Application Day" and all SHS seniors attended during their English classes. On that day, 66 seniors from Sheridan County School District 2 started — and in most cases, completed — a college application. Many have also conducted virtual visits to college campuses.
“Our virtual campus tour was already up on our website prior to COVID; however, we have had over 1,300 students over the past few months take a virtual tour with us,” Moore said. “It has been incredibly helpful to get students familiarized with campus.”
Every year in September, the Wyoming Admissions Officers host a Post High School Planning Day at various sites around the state, and this year, they produced a virtual college fair where students could sign up for access and visit the virtual "booths" for about 40 regional schools.
“That fair is still accessible online,” Mavrakis said. “Most colleges have put a lot of effort into making their admissions process as interactive as possible, albeit remotely.”
Kari Eakins, chief policy officer for the Wyoming Department of Education, said the pandemic has brought about many challenges to students and education in general.
“It has challenged educators to find new ways to serve and assist students. Educators have risen to the challenge, and continue to do so,” she said. “There are people in K-12 and higher ed that are willing and ready to help students succeed in their endeavors.”
Adaptations have been made at UW to waive certain testing requirements for admission, but qualification for scholarships like the Hathaway still depend on an ACT score.
According to Eakins, the state has offered students various avenues to take the ACT since the shutdowns in the spring of 2020, “giving students the opportunity to obtain the scores necessary for college entrance.”
Those included summer and fall testing, national testing with vouchers and state testing dates and times. The latest WDE information available showed that 4,077 of last year's juniors participated in the state testing dates this fall, and 52 vouchers were utilized for students participating in the national testing dates.
“Our desire is to ensure that every Wyoming student that wants to take the ACT is able to take the ACT,” Eakins said.
SHS was unable to administer the state-mandated ACT exam for juniors in the spring of 2020, but those students had the opportunity to take the ACT in October, Mavarkis said. Sheridan College, SCSD2’s closest ACT test center, will offer the ACT on Feb. 6.
“It has been more difficult for students to take the ACT this school year, due to test centers either limiting their capacities, or having to cancel exam dates,” she said. “Students have had to travel to other test centers (in Casper, Gillette, Billings) to take the ACT. As for the SAT, very few of our students take that exam, but SHS offered it in November and it will be given again here in May.”
At the state level, Eakins said the WDE’s Hathaway team has “stayed in close contact with our higher ed institutions in order to adjust guidance to students as necessary,” and has also continued to coordinate with GEAR UP, which focuses on support for first-generation college students. At UW, Moore said the Admissions Office stepped up its UW Answers Group, which was officially launched in October.
“The UW Answers Group provides a way for students to reach out to the university. It is a custom team of folks who will be that students’ support team from application all the way through to graduation,” Moore said.
The group matches an incoming student with an admissions counselor, a financial aid representative and someone on the student affairs side to help with housing or dining, he explained.
“That student can have one team of people to continue to go back to each time they have a need,” Moore said. “That group will also become familiar with that particular student, with their background and their needs.”
Eakins said she encourages students to “stay the course” during this challenging time.
“Complete the FAFSA, take or retake the ACT, apply to colleges, reach out to school counselors and support services like GEAR UP for assistance on college prep, apply for scholarships, complete the Hathaway Success Curriculum,” she said. “This way, (students) keep their options open for the future, even if they haven’t made a decision yet.”