Picking a college is hard. Now, N.J. kids have to decide without stepping foot on campus.

Eufemia Didonato

The Montclair University student ambassador hit all the traditional college tour notes.

She pointed out the pros and cons of each residence hall. She bragged about the Olympic-sized swimming pool and free fitness classes. And she told prospective students to rub Rocky the Red Hawk’s beak for good luck on finals.

But, when the time for questions arrived — usually a moment of delight for over-eager parents and humiliation for their weary children — the tour went silent. Instead, questions began filling up the Zoom chatbox.

Unlike a typical tour, with half-remembered lines about campus architecture and canned wisecracks about the perils of walking backward, this one took place entirely online. Tuning in remotely for one of Montclair State University’s “Virtual Campus Experiences,” students watched as the guide moved through an aerial map of campus, clicking on red pins that denoted each building and flicking through the slideshow.

For many high school seniors, this is the closest they will come to actually visiting a campus this year, barred from the customary spring tours and campus activities that help inform the biggest decision of a teenager’s life to-date.

Is a virtual tour enough to make the weighty decision?

“Those are helpful to an extent, but they can only do so much,” Morgan Vybihal, 17, a senior at James Caldwell High School, told NJ Advance Media.

Now, more than ever, colleges are desperate to woo prospective students, as they struggle with sharp declines in enrollment, tuition freezes, potential layoffs and a lack of income from on-campus student housing. That’s why schools are mobilizing resources to bolster virtual admissions programs — Montclair, for one, is holding a whopping 550 virtual events this spring.

But, college administrators agree that without an in-person campus tour it’s an awful lot harder to convince students to commit four years of their lives — and four years of tuition payments — to a school.

“You’re not going to buy a car if you didn’t have the chance to try it out,” Robert Heinrich, Stockton University’s Chief Enrollment Management Officer, told NJ Advance Media. “If you’re going to be looking at enrolling in a college or university, you really need to put your feet on that campus and feel yourself there as though it’s going to be your home for the next four years.”

A rite of passage for high schoolers, the campus tour does more than provide information about potential majors or admission requirements. Stepping foot on campus allows students to perform a gut check, scope out campus life and breathe in the vibe of a school.

“I tell people to do [this] all the time: come to campus, sit in the cafeteria, watch the students come and go — these are going to be your classmates in the future,” Wendy Lin-Cook, Montclair University’s vice president for enrollment management, told NJ Advance Media. “Do you feel comfortable, is this a place you want to be?”

But even if families come to stroll the grounds for a self-guided tour, it’s just not the same without a cheery guide rattling off facts while backpacked students breeze by.

“There’s a sort of energy to be on campus, and that’s definitely missing, even if they come on campus now, the campus is just not busy,” Lin-Cook said. “There’s no people sitting in the grass right now randomly just to read or activities going on… so even when they come on campus, they’re not going to get that sense of community, which I think is so important for a student when they’re making that decision.”

Carley Doktorski, 17, a senior at East Brunswick High School, recently committed to New York University after being accepted Early Decision. NYU being one of the few schools she’d toured prior to the pandemic, she made her choice after taking in the atmosphere and getting a sense for the types of students who attend.

“It’s hard to imagine yourself actually going to school someplace you’ve never been to,” Doktorski told NJ Advance Media, describing the prospect as “anxiety-inducing.”

Still, while traditional tours are on pause at Rutgers, Montclair, Princeton and a number of other schools, New Jersey universities have turned their focus to online events.

Montclair’s vast slate of virtual programs will include Virtual Campus Experiences, major-dedicated webinars, financial aid sessions and more. The school halted on-campus tours after Thanksgiving and hopes to start them back up in February if a decline in coronavirus cases allows.

Though Stockton is still allowing people to visit for personal family tours, the school has invested in boosting its virtual offerings. Interactive videos and newly captured aerial drone footage present an angle of campus students wouldn’t typically get by foot.

Schools have tried to eliminate some of the usual barriers too, with a number of New Jersey universities not requiring much-stressed-about standardized test scores.

There’s only so much schools can do, however, to steady an admissions calendar that’s already been thrown out of whack, as traditional spring events have been canceled and some schools’ deposit deadlines will likely be extended. And even once applications are in and a student makes their decision, the stress doesn’t go away.

“It’s harder to connect with [admitted] students, because it’s all through groupchats online,” Doktorski said.

Normally, an admitted student would also come to campus for all sorts of events — another tour, an admitted students’ day, an open house, class sit-ins, a meal in the dining hall, etc. Lin-Cook hopes that Montclair can host its usual slate of open houses and post-decision events later in the year, possibly in May or June, even though the May 1st decision deadline will have already passed.

Montclair will likely be flexible in accepting late deposits beyond Decision Day, Lin-Cook said.

Even with all the accommodations from colleges, many high schoolers are struggling to stay afloat, managing tedious online classes without the socialization and rewards senior year normally brings.

Vybihal is also having a tough time juggling everything as well, having just finished sending in audition tapes to various theatre programs. Like Maling and thousands of high schoolers in the same boat, she’s just doing her best to stay positive.

“It’s hard to find motivation with online classes and college applications on top of it,” Vybihal said. “It’s definitely weird. It’s sometimes hard to see where the light is at the end of the tunnel, but you just got to keep reminding yourself that things are slowly getting better and this isn’t going to last forever.”

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