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Prospective students and their parents approach tour Georgetown

Prospective students and their parents approach tour Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 2019. Last year, students couldn't visit colleges and it's still tough to tour  a campus this year. Credit: EPA-EFE/REX / Shutterstock/Jim Lo Scalzo

It was 2 a.m. on a Thursday when we finally hit the jackpot.

For days, we had tried to secure a campus tour spot at one of my rising senior daughter’s top choices, hoping to take a road trip to Chicago.

Schools offering on-campus visits are wisely keeping groups small, often requiring reservations, along with vaccination or negative COVID-19 tests. But with enormous demand, tour slots — often secured online — have become as coveted as a vaccine appointment was back in January.

That effort is a small piece of the always arduous, often mystifying, college admissions ritual. The pandemic has made it even more complicated, but with that has come an opportunity to open up, rethink and improve the process.

Last year, students couldn't visit colleges and the supply/demand chasm means it’s still tough to do so. Similarly, SAT and ACT standardized test offerings often are canceled or hard to come by. High schoolers who weren’t able to participate in extracurricular activities or volunteer find it tougher to stand out in an applicant crowd. And financial constraints weigh heavily.

But the pandemic also has forced colleges and universities to take steps to better the search and admissions picture — changes that shouldn’t disappear as the pandemic eases. The now-abundant mix of online tours, discussions and open houses provides a valuable way to see colleges without paying for a plane ticket or hotel.

Then there’s testing. Hundreds of schools appropriately became test-optional last year. Students could still take the standardized tests and send results, but it wasn’t required. Of the more than a million students who submitted the Common Application, just 44% added SAT or ACT scores, compared with 77% the prior year. The percentage of minority applicants that submitted tests was even lower and some experts say that may have helped in the results, which so far show the number of minority and first-generation students accepted to top private institutions rose.

All of this comes in the wake of the 2019 college admissions scandal. Some thought that would lead to more change. Perhaps the pandemic will.

Many top-tier schools extended test-optional guidelines for this year and that should continue. Tweaks to the system will be necessary to better evaluate those who submit scores and those who don't, and to account for shifting metrics.

The tests remain important tools, especially when classes or grades don't tell the whole story, or for students who see them as a positive, even affirming step. While the optionality is helpful, banning them isn’t the answer. Neither is a controversial proposal from Harvard University professor Michael Sandel to turn college admissions into a lottery.

But the pandemic should be the impetus for reform. That can start with a more open, even simplified, process. Author Jeffrey Selingo, in "Who Gets In and Why," calls the system "ambiguous" "arbitrary," and "baffling." It doesn't have to be. Just as students must find new ways to distinguish themselves, higher education institutions must bring clarity to their changing selection processes, standards and choices, while striving for equity, so every student can find the right fit.

Part of that fit-finding starts with rite-of-passage college road trips. While virtual tours are an important option, they can't be the only option. Some schools, including many on Long Island, now provide organized tours in safe ways, but too many remain shuttered. Students and schools would benefit if every institution welcomed vaccinated visitors back to campus.

Thanks to snagging that rare tour spot, we’ll be driving to Chicago this weekend. But schools must find ways to improve the whole process, so all aspiring college students can find the right campus.

Columnist Randi F. Marshall's opinions are her own.