College-bound arts students want in-person experiences, study says

A new report shows what they and their parents think of virtual learning, virtual performances and virtual tours.
By: | March 24, 2021
Elijah Henderson/Unsplash

From live performances and auditions to academics, the equation for admissions for college-seeking arts students is often more complex than for traditional students.

That formula has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to unique pivots by high school student as they’ve tried to better position themselves for acceptance. Many have turned to social media to show off their talents and conducted virtual interviews while also learning virtually.

Despite their flexibility, willingness and fortitude, the majority of students and their parents (62%) nonetheless said they are concerned about that being replicated at the postsecondary level, according to a new study released by visual and performing arts consultancy ArtsBridge.

Having already experienced a year of remote instruction and remote performances, two-thirds of high school juniors and seniors polled said they don’t feel college is worth the cost if it can’t be done live and in person. The majority of parents agreed. And half of students who’ve gone through a tumultuous year at the college level said it isn’t, either.

For high schoool students in the arts, they are entertaining many other thoughts – test-taking, financial considerations and college visits – as they weigh their options.

Ever resilient, as evidenced by their talents scattered across YouTube and TikTok,  the majority of students said they want to remain on their career paths and are not worried about their career prospects.

“In my 30-plus years of working in higher education, I never would have thought we’d see students auditioning for their dream schools from their kitchens,” said Halley Shefler, CEO & Founder of ArtsBridge, former Dean of Enrollment for The Boston Conservatory and Director of Admissions at Boston University’s School of Music. “I’m so inspired to see students persevere and embrace the challenges of virtual artistic training during the COVID-19 pandemic. Broadway may be dark, but the future of the arts is bright.”

The challenges ahead

Though the majority of students said they will remain on track for a future in the arts, some 30% said they are considering a gap year, while another 17% were thinking about switching from BFA or BM to BA or BS degree paths. Another 16% were contemplating community college as an option – and that number might rise slightly if the latest $3 trillion stimulus proposal from President Joe Biden does include free tuition.

Affordability is in on their minds. More than 40% of both high school students and parents expressed concern about ability to pay, and more than half of parents said they’ve had dialogue with students about the cost of college and their financial situations.

Beyond those potential barriers were two more:

  • College visits: Less than 5% of prospective college-bound students had a face-to-face visit to an institution because of COVID-19. Colleges and universities did what they can to replicate the experience through virtual tours and interviews, and more than three-quarters of students and parents surveyed took advantage of these options. However, more than 60% of juniors said they did no visiting at all, either in person or online. Authors said they are waiting to have in-person visits. For institutions wondering about the value of on-campus tours and interviews, more than a third of students and parents noted that one of their top concerns was “not being able to visit college campuses.”
  • Standardized tests: More than 50% of colleges and universities have gone test-optional for 2021-22 and some in subsequent years to try to boost their applicant pools and also allow for students who have experienced hardships to be able to apply without fear that a single score will be a determinant for entry. Students have responded, with 90% of those polled by ArtsBridge submitting applications to test-optional schools. Surprisingly, 75% said they plan to take or had taken the SAT or ACT, with more than 80% saying they are going to give those scores to institutions.

“Students are looking for a competitive edge at selective and highly selective colleges that went test-optional this year, and for some that may include submitting standardized test scores to one or more of the colleges on their list,” said Shaun Ramsay, Vice President at ArtsBridge and former Assistant Director of the Boston University School of Music. “Trust the competition will be fiercer than ever at those colleges.”

Those applications to top-tier schools, however, has left a obvious void other institutions, which will need to continue to position strategically and be more marketable to compete.

“Middle- and lower-tier colleges, however, are suffering from smaller applicant pools this year and some institutions are facing existential challenges as a result,” Ramsay said. “The pandemic has disproportionately affected colleges and is widening the gap between the haves and have nots.”

Withing the survey, ArtsBridge also asked college students and college professors to respond to some of the questions posed to high school students and parents.

Despite the challenging year of remote learning, roughly 50% of college students said the value was worth it, while a resounding 72% of college professors and 67% of high school instructors believe it has value.

The remote experience, however, hasn’t been easy – most said they struggled to make friends and had a subpar social life and more than 50% expressed that their mental health has been adversely affected by the pandemic.

In order to help those students and gain trust with those who are applying, it is imperative that colleges and universities continue to provide and promote a robust suite of supports and services during and post-pandemic. For incoming students, institution should consider campus tour options if they can be done safely, while  promoting test-optional scores and any other initiatives that help to meet student needs.

Reaching students is critically important as 89% of those surveyed (and 77% of parents) say they will be deciding their future.