University of Montana admissions counselor Sheridan Cook prospects via laptop. Credit: Tommy Martino / University Marketing, University of Montana

On April 16, the Montana Board of Regents of Higher Education suspended a longstanding requirement that students seeking to attend Montana universities submit ACT or SAT scores as part of their college application. The decision, which will remain in effect until Sept. 21, 2021, was implemented in response to widespread postponement of standardized test schedules during the coronavirus pandemic. In lieu of those scores, the regents approved temporary subject-specific grade criteria that high school students must meet for college admission.

“I think with the stresses at home, the organizational stresses that students face right now, we just stepped back and thought maybe this is the time for us to really de-emphasize that as a requirement for admissions,” said Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner of academic, research and student affairs with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

That suspension is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the novel coronavirus has impacted the college admissions process in Montana. Cathy Cole, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Montana, said the current public health crisis emerged at a critical time for university recruitment. Typically spring is when UM is busy both securing commitments from high school seniors and attempting to woo high school juniors by introducing them to the campus, faculty and outdoor programs.

“This is an incredibly important time for us,” Cole said, “and to have COVID hit right about in the middle of both of those, it was pretty significant for us.” 

Now, instead of hosting groups of prospective students and their parents in-person, admissions counselors are venturing onto the UM campus with phones and tablets to conduct personalized one-on-one tours for potential enrollees. University photographers and videographers have compiled photo albums and recorded videos “on the fly,” Cole said, in an effort to give high-schoolers a sense of how they might fit in with the campus and the surrounding Missoula community. Her staff’s schedules are crammed with Zoom appointments, and recruitment postcards are going out in the mail every day.

“Through our Student Enrollment Communication Center … we’re making close to 500 contacts a day,” Cole said. “And then our recruiters have their own groups of students that they’re reaching out to every day, and that’s in the hundreds as well.”

The situation looks largely the same at Helena’s Carroll College. Chato Hazelbaker, vice president of enrollment management and marketing, said 144 admitted students signed up for an online open house April 20 designed to help them sign up for student housing and register for classes. Admissions representatives have been conducting one-on-one tele-meetings with prospective students, and several biology professors will be featured on an April 24 Zoom chat for high-schoolers wanting to learn more about the program.

“If a student wants to see our nursing lab, they can get online with their admissions representative right now and their admissions representative will put them on the iPhone and walk them over and show them around the nursing lab,” Hazelbaker said. “It’s not just seeing the places, it’s also connecting with the people.”

Hazelbaker added that Carroll College “lucked out” on the standardized test front. Carroll made admissions test-optional last fall, meaning the institution already had an “on-ramp” to admit students without ACT or SAT scores prior to the Board of Regents’ coronavirus-inspired decision. But even with that head start and the ability to court high school juniors and seniors virtually, Hazelbaker said, the pandemic has had a tangible impact on the number of students who are willing or able to meet Carroll’s May 1 enrollment deposit deadline.

“We’re still seeing a lot of students make commitments, but we are seeing some students ask if they can hold off making a final commitment because they haven’t had a chance to visit campus, or maybe were financially affected by the coronavirus,” Hazelbaker said. “They want to hold out their options a little bit.”

Communications staff at Montana State University and University of Montana Western in Dillon did not return messages requesting comment. Kim Hayworth, vice chancellor for student access and success at MSU-Billings, reported that her staff had also switched to virtual tours and Zoom calls in response to the pandemic. Hayworth was optimistic about how those tactics are playing out so far. Still, travel restrictions and social distancing did require the cancellation of several large events that normally serve to introduce high-schoolers to MSU-Billings and its two-year affiliate, City College. Recruiters were also unable to travel to Montana high schools or attend a tribal college fair this spring, and on-site visits with transfer students were canceled.

“On our career day at City College, we would have been hosting over 200 students in one day,” Hayworth said. “They would have been able to get some hands-on experience, they would have been in the classroom and in some of the labs.”

Cole, Hazelbaker and Hayworth all noted the prevalence of financial aid as a topic of conversations with prospective students. Approximately 22 million people nationwide have been cast into unemployment due to coronavirus business closures, and that figure includes many parents of prospective college students. Cole said a number of students have contacted her office needing to refile their FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, forms due to recent changes in family income. She added that UM anticipated that development in February, and shifted business staff to her office to meet the challenge. At MSU-Billings, Hayworth said the FAFSA verification process can be intimidating for students and parents alike, and she expects there will be a significant call for financial aid guidance this fall.

“I absolutely expect our financial aid office to be really inundated with these requests and the need for individual counseling to our students to just help them make decisions, help them through the verification process,” she said.

“If you’re a high school senior and you want to see your friends, and you’ve now missed your senior sports season, and now you’ve missed prom and you may miss graduation, that’s a tidal wave of disappointment.”

—Carroll College vice president of enrollment management and marketing Chato Hazelbaker

Hazelbaker speculated that for lower- income high school students nationwide, college enrollment in the fall may no longer look like a possibility.

That the pandemic is having an outsized impact on higher education nationwide became painfully clear in recent weeks. College students at Michigan State University and Virginia’s Liberty University have filed lawsuits against their institutions demanding reimbursement of tuition, housing and other fees after campus shutdowns. Colleges across the country remain unsure whether campuses will reopen this fall, and whether in-person instruction will be possible. In Montana, Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian announced on April 21 the formation of a task force to develop health protocols and strategies for the fall 2020 semester across the Montana University System. 

As for standardized test scores, Montana colleges and universities plan to continue accepting them as optional application materials, and Tessman said ACT scores will remain a tool for statewide performance assessment and a required criteria for the Montana University System Honors Scholarship. He added that the Board of Regents will revisit the test-score suspension at a later date to decide whether to make the change permanent.

Cole, Hazelbaker and Hayworth agree that late summer and fall of 2020 will be even more pivotal than most years in helping new students transition to college life, since for many incoming students it will be their earliest direct experience of campus. And they’re planning accordingly, developing contingencies for whatever type of social and instructional experience the coronavirus and responsive restrictions allow as the semester begins. Despite the uncertainty, Hazelbaker said he sees a lot of enthusiasm among prospective students.

“If you’re a high school senior and you want to see your friends, and you’ve now missed your senior sports season, and now you’ve missed prom and you may miss graduation, that’s a tidal wave of disappointment,” he said. “So to have something to look forward to in the fall in terms of college — we’re really seeing students want that experience.”


Disclosure: Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner of academic, research and student affairs with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, is married to MTFP director of development and operations Kristin Tessman. MTFP business staff, including Kristin Tessman, do not have input into editorial coverage, nor do they read MTFP stories prior to publication.


Freelance writer Alex Sakariassen has spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, Sakariassen splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at alex.sakariassen@gmail.com.