Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Marc Harding wants incoming Pitt students to know that the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid is still open for business.
“We’re keeping the front doors virtually open, and we are planning for an amazing fall ’20 class,” Harding, the vice provost for enrollment, said.
With the shift to a world online, OAFA has shifted as well. The office continues to connect with incoming students through programs like online advising and a virtual Admitted Students Day while employees work from home.
According to Molly Swagler, executive director of enrollment outreach, OAFA hosted its first online Admitted Students Day on Friday. The 3,200 registered students connected through Zoom, Facebook and YouTube to attend live information sessions that normally would have been in-person.
The sessions covered subjects like major-specific programming, and students asked questions about things such as housing and dining, Swagler said.
“It was by all measures a successful event, in that we were able to connect on a number of different platforms, we got a lot of engagement,” she said.
After signing up for the event through the OAFA website, students were sent the link to a YouTube Premiere.
At the end of the initial YouTube event, Swagler said, students were prompted to choose what kind of videos they wanted to watch next, creating a “name-your-own adventure.” Follow-up video options included a prerecorded campus tour from a Pathfinder and Q&A sessions with leaders from various academic programs.
OAFA staff interacted with students through Zoom sessions and Facebook live events, where students could respond to presenters with questions. The office posted other content on Instagram stories and YouTube discussing topics such as things to do on campus and in the City.
Swagler said the 3,200 students who signed up for Friday’s event surpassed the capacity limit for a typical on-campus session. OAFA couldn’t track how many students actually attended, Swagler said. Though there are no additional admitted students days scheduled yet, Swagler said OAFA plans to add more.
In addition to being completely virtual, Harding said Friday’s program stands out in more ways than one.
“This is an epic and historic day,” Harding said. “It will be the largest visit program in Pitt’s history.”
This time of year is crucial for incoming first-years and very busy for OAFA, Harding said. Many students visit campuses as they find out where they’ve been accepted during the spring, and he said an on-campus visit can weigh heavily on a student’s decision.
“Students that visit are more likely to enroll than students that don’t visit,” Harding said.
Harding said many students choose to take their first visit to campus in the spring because they’ve already been accepted. Ivy Chang, a high school senior from Downingtown, said she had been to campus multiple times before Pitt shifted to online classes. Although she hasn’t enrolled yet, she said Pitt was her top choice.
Because her older sister goes to Pitt, Chang said she was familiar with Pitt’s campus. She said there was one thing she’s yet to see, which she planned on doing this spring.
“I was hoping to check out Bruce Hall and the business school and stuff, because that’s where I would be doing a finance econ degree,” Chang said. “Since [my sister’s in] Dietrich and stuff, I haven’t gotten an opportunity to check out that school at all.”
Harding said recent events surrounding the coronavirus have left many students with questions about admissions and financial aid. However, OAFA has always been prepared to handle students coming to the office with difficulties that arise during this busy season for college admissions.
“Everyday, without COVID-19, [we] are dealing with volumes of students around this time of year who are calling and asking for extensions, or just having a conversation about financial hardships or other things, and the team takes care of them,” he said.
In terms of financial hardship, Randy McCready, executive director of financial aid, said his department continues to mostly run “business as usual,” but with many questions from both incoming and returning students.
McCready said it is too soon to reevaluate most financial aid eligibility because of how quickly everything changes. He recognized that economic issues may have arisen from the coronavirus, such as parents receiving extended furloughs, which may have caused unforeseen obstacles for students.
“If there are immediate needs that have come up that were completely unexpected, where somebody had to go home and they were here in Pittsburgh and they have real charges, we are looking at things like that to see how we are able to help out an immediate need at this time,” McCready said.
The University has yet to push back any application, enrollment or deposit deadlines, but continues to monitor the situation and take individual circumstances into account, Harding said.
Another problem for students in light of the pandemic is being disconnected from resources at their high schools, which are now closed. Swagler said students may be cut off from materials such as their high school transcript.
OAFA is helping those students as best it can through various forms of communication, including a two-way text platform, which launched this year.
“We are working with them to be flexible on what it is and where they are,” Swagler said.
When an admitted student registers for a campus event, Swagler said, OAFA sends them an automated long-form text message. This means that the message comes from a 10-digit phone number with a Pittsburgh area code, and it becomes a two-way platform if a student decides to respond. That text then goes to someone from OAFA using a computer texting service, who will then answer any questions the student may have.
In addition to the texting service, Swagler said both current and prospective students with concerns about financial aid can take part in a live information session with a financial aid counselor through Zoom. Those sessions were designed to host many students at a time, so those who want to request an individual appointment can do so by calling or emailing the office.
Regular campus information sessions that occur year-round haven’t ceased either. Through the OAFA website, students who haven’t even applied can sign up for a variety of programming, such as live virtual information sessions with an admissions officer through Zoom. Students can also view some prerecorded campus tours, which were filmed recently in anticipation of a shift to online learning.
“It helped to be thinking about it,” Swagler said. “That’s why thinking about what’s next is always important, to think about what’s next and not just what’s now.”
As far as plans for summer programming for incoming students, like Panther Connect, Harding said it was too soon to say if events would still be held in person. Even if they were to be cancelled, Harding said students could still prepare since new student orientation shifted online last summer, and in-person sessions aren’t mandatory.
Harding said he hoped students would still be able to effectively connect with the University through virtual means. He was only a little worried students would be less likely to enroll because they can’t complete a spring on-campus visit.
“You can’t visit a college campus in the country right now, so we’re in the same boat as everyone else,” Harding said. “If it was just us, I’d be extra nervous. I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you I wasn’t nervous.”