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The Second Wave at Our Colleges

By Jeff Doyle

second wave

How can admission officers help curb the tide?

The US has been dealing with COVID-19 for three months now and the nationwide quarantine has been lifting one state at a time. By the end of May, all 50 states had some restrictions lifted and various establishments are opening each week. This is supposed to be a new normal—a normal defined by social distancing, mask-wearing, and lots of hand sanitizer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made it clear that this is a virus that only needs a small group of people to act as transmitters. So, what’s with the friend who didn’t wear a mask to the dentist? Why is the hardware store full of people who ignore the 6-foot markers on the floor? Why are teens hanging out in large groups around campus?

Psychologists have demonstrated that many people are not good at estimating health risks. (Witness those who refuse get flu shots each year, don’t vaccinate their children, or smoke in spite of endless warnings.) It also seems we can’t appeal to their altruistic nature to protect the people around them. Why can’t we get through to everyone?

Time and time again, disasters strike and efforts to fundraise for those affected struggle to succeed. I remember a study a while back in which a US oil spill was killing many sea animals. The study asked how much money someone would give if they knew 1,000, 10,000, or 100,000 animals had died. The results were not significantly different—the amounts went up slightly but came nowhere near the proportionality of the deaths. This is often referred to as psychic numbing. Our minds can’t fathom the size because it’s so removed from us.

There was one factor, however, that significantly increased giving. When the organization told the story of how one duck became trapped in oil and showed video of the duck slowly dying, donations increased exponentially. What happened? The organization made the issue personal to the giver. Fundraisers call this the identifiable victim effect.

Have you ever noticed that the people who make issues their personal battle are often people who have personally been impacted by that issue? Parents who lose children to suicide, drunk driving, or all sorts of unique medical issues become champions for these causes, raising millions to help others. This is often referred to as sympathy bias. Have you ever attended an American Cancer Society Relay for Life? If so, you will be hard pressed to find anyone there not touched by cancer.

Thankfully, because so much of the nation responded quickly by staying at home, the deadly impact of COVID-19 was lessened, and therefore has touched fewer people. But, because of this, the identifiable victim effect and sympathy bias was also lessened, leaving many people unaffected as they see the number of coronavirus deaths continue to creep past 100,000.

To make thing more complicated on our campuses, students, most of whom are young, think they are invincible. The reason for this is that their frontal lobes—which help us best identify risky behaviors—aren’t fully developed yet. And they won’t be until age 25 for women and 30 for men!

Most of the mistakes college students make primarily impact themselves. Skipping class, not sleeping enough, and abusing substances all often lead to poor grades and health. This may concern their families, but the rest of us see it as a phase.

This fall, however, a handful of students who make poor decisions could put the health and lives of thousands at their colleges, and millions in the nation, at risk. Secret parties in crammed rooms and apartments, ignoring self-quarantines after road trips, and refusing to wear masks are behaviors that could turn colleges in to the new national hot spots.

What can admission officers do to help? There’s no easy answer, but admission officers have the strongest relational connections with incoming students. They may have the greatest chance, within universities, of personally impacting our students. As you communicate with students and tell the story of your school, consider the psychological phenomena above.

If our admission officers encourage incoming students to follow new university approaches to keeping students safe, their influence could have more impact than we might imagine. The fact is, a second wave of COVID-19 appears inevitable, but with the help of admission professionals, we could potentially lessen its spread and flatten the curve.

Jeff Doyle is the associate director for planning and assessment at Baylor University (TX).

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