BLACKSBURG — Applying to Virginia Tech will look different for students trying to get into the school this fall.
The university will shift to using a uniform application process created by the independent Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, said Juan Espinoza, interim director of undergraduate admissions and assistant vice provost for enrollment management at Tech. The school will also offer a new non-binding early action application similar to a binding early decision application option already offered.
Admissions counselors will also take a wider view of an applicant’s experiences and give more weight to what’s outlined in their essays.
And even though getting into Tech will remain challenging, as the school will keep up its standards for admittance, taking into account an applicant’s life situation will be more important than ever.
“We’re looking for more ways to say ‘yes,’ instead of saying ‘no,’ ” Espinoza said.
That’s the goal of the nationwide group of colleges who are working on ways to get more students who might otherwise struggle to afford college onto campuses across the country.
Tech joined the coalition in 2015, though it didn’t immediately accept the application. The College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia are also members and will accept applications from the coalition this year. James Madison University began accepting applications from the coalition last year.
Virginia private colleges including Sweet Briar College and the University of Richmond also accept the application.
A new application in a new time frame
The coalition application is designed to help lower-income and first generation students apply to college by improving ease and accessibility to financial aid.
The coalition’s website also provides resources and a space to save documents that can be used on a college application.
Originated by a small group of colleges, the coalition’s application is turning into a nationwide movement that’s now used by more than 140 member schools.
Students will apply through that application and then fill out a unique set of four essay questions for Tech, Espinoza said.
Tech’s portion of the application is still being finalized, but Tech will be looking for students who have a positive self-concept, are working toward self-development academically, and possess a commitment to improving society.
The coalition application, accessible through the organization and through Tech’s website, will be the only way to apply to the school.
The application should attract more students from diverse backgrounds by breaking down barriers that might prevent a student from applying, Espinoza said.
There will also be a new application timeline for students with the introduction of what’s called early action. Under that system, students can apply early to get a non-binding decision that’s due by Dec. 1.
There’s also a separate early decision program with applications due by Nov. 1. That requires students to accept an offer and make a deposit.
A regular decision application is due Jan. 15.
Espinoza said he believes most students will apply before the early action deadline to have a better idea of where they stand as they apply to multiple colleges.
Looking at the whole student, helping with fees
Espinoza said Tech admissions officials will take a new, more “holistic” approach as they examine applications next year.
Reviewers will put extra effort into examining the context of a student’s situation — taking special note of the narrative given in their essay.
Tech admissions officers have always looked beyond raw numbers like GPA and SAT scores toward markers such as course rigor and extracurricular activities, Espinoza said. But life experience will take on a new importance.
Did the potential student work a job to provide for themselves and still maintain decent grades in high school? That question could be an indicator of success.
Tech already has a freshman retention rate — a measure of first-year students making it into their second year — of more than 90 percent annually.
Making sure that number stays high is a priority for the school’s administrators, Espinoza said.
A hard-working student that can be paired with a financial aid package that’s available for renewal will be key to keeping up retention, he said.
The coalition’s application process also makes it easier for students to get a fee waiver from Tech.
The application will automatically waive all fees for students who receive a free or reduced school lunch , qualify for fee waivers from standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT, or participate in a TRIO aid program for disadvantaged students.
Military veterans applying to Tech will also have their application fees waived.
The waivers are an important difference from Tech’s previous application system, according to Espinoza. He said that under the previous system, potential students would need to acquire a code from Tech or their high school counselors.
The place to enter that code was located in the middle of the application and difficult to identify.
Espinoza said he assumes some students who were eligible for fee waivers either ended up paying the fees or giving up on the application process for Tech.
Potential students will also be able to self-report their transcripts and standardized test scores in an effort to prevent delays in processing and sending transcripts from high schools to Tech, Espinoza said.
Tech will eventually request transcripts and test scores after a student decides to attend the institution, to verify grades.
Espinoza said this practice is already used at other universities and, because of the grade verification process, it’s rare — and foolish — for potential students to lie about their grades.
Attracting more and different sorts of students
Cutting costs for students, especially from low income families , is about opening doors rather than giving handouts, according to Luisa Havens Gerardo, vice provost for enrollment management.
“This is not about giving anybody a break,” Havens Gerardo said.
She hopes to expose the school to students who might not have otherwise applied.
As Tech makes these changes to the application process, the school is also intensifying recruitment at high schools and middle schools in an effort to increase exposure to more students who are under-represented on the Blacksburg campus.
All these changes are in step with Tech President Tim Sands’ previously stated goals to increase the student body’s diversity.
Sands has said he wants 40 percent of the student body to be made up of underrepresented students, under-served first-generation or low-income students by 2022.
In the incoming freshman class, 34 percent of the students fit those categories, an increase of 3 percent from the class that entered a year ago.
Underrepresented student groups include Hispanics, African Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and people of mixed races.
Those goals make sense for where the demographics of the country and commonwealth are headed, Havens Gerardo said. Competition for attracting students is fierce and Tech will need to have more minority and first-generation students if it wants to thrive, she said.
Tech’s size and influence will diminish if it doesn’t attract populations that it hasn’t served well in the past, Havens Gerardo said.
“In the next 20 years the institutions that figure out how to serve the people and demographics in our country are the ones that will still be standing,” she said.
A university receptive to ‘the dream student’
A Tech education is — and will likely continue to be — in relatively high demand.
Tech received about 32,000 applications — a record number — for the class arriving in the fall of 2018, despite annual tuition increases for the past 18 years.
Espinoza said he expects even more applications for fall 2019 students because of the changes.
Of those who applied in 2018, a little more than 60 percent were accepted, according to Havens Gerardo.
It’s unknown exactly how many will end up at Tech, but Havens Gerardo said not to expect another record freshman class such as the one that tested the campus’s capacity last fall.
But interest in the school remains a positive attribute for Tech officials trying to shape its future, Sands has said.
“Soaring interest in Virginia Tech for both in-state and out-of-state students reflects the value of the degree and the 21st century student experience that we offer,” Sands said at March’s university Board of Visitors meeting.
The main drawback , Sands said, is that the school has had to wait-list or deny qualified applicants who “could be successful at Virginia Tech.”
Tech officials believe those trends will continue with the new application process. Admissions counselors are already bracing for another record year of applications, Havens Gerardo said.
But regardless of the application or people who want into the school, Tech officials remain confident that the students who decide to attend will continue to be high achievers.