Coronavirus, exam cancellations may bring obstacles for higher ed
COLUMBIA — In an effort to contain the novel coronavirus, the Chinese government has canceled a number of exams this month. Many of these are used by U.S. higher education institutions when admitting international students.
The canceled exams include the IELTS and TOEFL exams, both of which are English proficiency tests. Additionally, graduate-level exams such as the GRE and the GMAT have been canceled.
According to news releases from China’s National Education Examination Authority, the tests were canceled in conjunction with the announcement of a “Level One Public Health Emergency Response.” The releases advised those signed up to take the canceled exams to “stay calm” and “take good care” of themselves.
Kevin Kruger is president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, a professional association for student affairs administrators based in Washington and representing about 2,000 higher education institutions and 16,000 student affairs professionals.
Kruger said cancellation of the tests may have a sizable impact on international student enrollment in American higher education. These effects may be visible as early as the fall.
“I think certainly it could be very, very disruptive to students who might otherwise have wanted to study in the United States who now may not be able to either complete their admissions requirements or may be prohibited from traveling here at all,” Kruger said. “In that regard, it has the potential to be really quite disruptive to a wide range of institutions who have had fairly robust Chinese enrollment over the years.”
This may mean American institutions will need to adjust their admissions strategies.
“That’s the thing that we’d be most concerned about at this point: How do you make up the class if you’ve been holding some spaces for international enrollees?” Kruger said. “It has the potential to have a very significant economic impact for the institutions who’ve historically had a high international enrollment.”
Those include Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue universities.
Alternative testing methods
Although it’s uncertain how universities will deal with these potential challenges in the admissions process, adjusting testing procedures may be an option.
“The risk here is the institutions may not be able to make admissions decisions for students who have not been able to complete the correct set of tests,” Kruger said. “Some institutions may go to some alternative testing methods that don’t require students to actually arrive at a location, at a center in China.”
For MU, alternative testing options will be available for Chinese applicants who had their English proficiency tests canceled, spokesperson Liz McCune said.
“Most undergraduate students coming from China already had submitted these exams, but we did identify 11 undergraduate applicants from China that either had not yet submitted a qualifying score or had indicated on their application that they intended to take one of the now canceled exams in February,” McCune said in an email.
To provide current applicants from China an alternative and safe way to prove their English proficiency, MU will accept the Duolingo English Test, McCune said. It is accepted at 507 higher learning institutions, according to the Duolingo website.
Whereas the TOEFL and IELTS exams are proctored and take about four and three hours respectively, the Duolingo English Test takes about an hour and can be taken anytime and anywhere as long as the test taker is using a computer with a webcam, McCune said. Duolingo test takers are filmed while they are taking their exams and cannot leave the room or have their eyes leave the computer screen.
“Duolingo scores are not broken down by individual skill areas but instead are just one number, meaning they do not give as much insight to admission teams as to the test taker’s abilities in specific areas,” McCune said. “The test is currently accepted by about 500 institutions worldwide, and its short history also means that it has not yet been thoroughly investigated and benchmarked against more common exams like the TOEFL and IELTS.”
She said there is no clear impact on admissions yet from the graduate exam cancellations in China.
“Since graduate applications typically need to be complete in order to be reviewed by the academic programs, the cancellations appear to have had little affect at this point,” McCune said. “The majority of our Chinese applicants have already submitted qualifying exams; out of over 300 submitted applications from China for 2020 academic year, only eight applicants have not provided qualifying language test scores and do not meet our waiver requirements.”
Impacting campus enrollment trends
Exam cancellations may not be the only obstacle tied to the novel coronavirus facing higher education.
Kruger said American universities with programs in China are being curtailed and travel constraints are affecting the ability of international student to come to the U.S.
“Of course, that’s just China, but if this becomes a pandemic, additional travel restrictions could certainly be in place that would curtail a lot of international mobility between countries and other institutions, not just in the United States but around the world,” Kruger said.
International enrollment numbers have already dropped off in recent years, both on a national scale and at MU.
MU saw a 56% decline in students from China over the past five years. For the fall 2019 semester, there were 323 Chinese undergraduate students and 663 total Chinese international students, including graduate and professional students, McCune said.
Although the national numbers are still increasing, the rate of increase has slowed, reaching the lowest level in a decade for the 2017–18 school year.
“We already know that international enrollment has been decreasing over the last three to four years anyhow,” Kruger said. “But if you look at the data, it is not increasing, but there’s still a very robust cohort of international students who come to the U.S., so this could further erode those numbers.”
Kruger described the admissions situation as “unprecedented in a lot of ways” and said universities will need to develop backup plans.
“I think there’s a lot of unknowns, and right now I think a lot of contingency and crisis planning is occurring across campuses all over the country,” Kruger said.
At MU, the full reach of the impact the coronavirus may have on international student numbers is unclear.
“At this point, it’s very hard to predict how the virus might affect enrollment for 2020. The situation is still very fluid,” McCune said. “The majority of international students arrive in July and August for the fall semester, so (there’s) no noticeable impact on enrollment at this time.”