Amid campus protests, some teens and parents reconsider enrollment decisions

CNN — Earlier this year, an 18-year-old high school senior from New York City had planned to enroll at Columbia University’s sister school Barnard College in Manhattan as an early decision student. But after her parents saw heightened tensions over the Israel-Gaza conflict surface across some US campuses, including at Barnard and Columbia, they went back to her list.

The student, who spoke to CNN under the condition of anonymity over privacy concerns, ultimately chose Brandeis University in Massachusetts, one of only two schools on the Anti-Defamation League’s 2024 list of 85 colleges that received an A grade for its response to antisemitic incidents on campus and its support for Jewish students.

“Barnard was my top choice. I was so dead set on going,” said the private school student, who is Jewish. “But after seeing what is happening on campuses, I feel so glad I am going to Brandeis. I feel really happy and safe knowing they got an A.”

The student’s mother said reconsidering where her daughter attends in the fall was a family decision.

“We know these issues are happening everywhere, but we prioritized how the university administration was responding, how many Jews are on the campus and if it had a Jewish community,” she said.

Other families also have been grappling with where to send their high school students in the fall as campus protests continue to play out at schools around the country, even as the final deadline fast approaches.

Students nationwide have only a few days left to submit their college deposits and make their decisions on where to enroll for the fall; many schools list their College Decision Day as on or around May 1. From impacting the logistics of visiting campuses to the confrontations splashed across television screens, the protests have, in the two short weeks since they’ve spread, further complicated making a final college choice for some members of the class of 2028.

On Tuesday night, clashes escalated between law enforcement and protesters at the University of California, Los Angeles after a violent confrontation broke out between pro-Palestinian protesters and counter protesters. In New York, about 300 protesters were arrested at Columbia University and City College after officers cleared protesters from encampments and an occupied building. In a statement shared with Columbia’s community, university president Minouche Shafik said the decision to ask the New York City Police Department to intervene was “because my first responsibility is safety.”

Since April 18, more than 1,500 people have been arrested on more than 30 college and university campuses across at least 23 states, according to a CNN review of university and law enforcement statements.

Mimi Doe – the co-founder and CEO of Top Tier Admissions, whose admission experts help students get into their college of choice – told CNN some students have already reconsidered where to attend, particularly when it comes to enrolling at Columbia University. Columbia has had perhaps the highest profile pro-Palestinian encampments and protests.

“We recently received frantic texts and calls from a student who got into Columbia … and [they] ended up taking the school off their list [due to the protests],” she said.

For privacy reasons, Doe and other college coaches declined to share contact information for the parents and students mentioned in this article but shared their responses based on CNN’s questions.

“Jewish students and Jewish parents are definitely making more informed decisions about where their students would feel safe, but it’s not just Jewish families. We just heard from another student who got into Columbia who is not Jewish, and their mom and dad said, ‘Nope, let’s take it off the table.’”

Revisiting a campus and perhaps a decision

Some students this time of year participate in what’s called a “revisit day,” where they visit or drive through campuses one last time to get a better sense of the lifestyle and environment before accepting. But increased safety measures, such as universities closing their gates to outsiders or conducting heavy screenings to enter admission offices, have made this practice more difficult this year, Doe said.

While universities have been faced with an onslaught of controversy following the attack by Hamas militants on Israel on October 7, from antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents on campus to growing political unrest, the protests have been even more “jarring” for students and parents, she said.

In a Facebook post in the group Grown and Flown Parents, where more than 250,000 parents discuss college admission issues, one parent expressed concern over her son’s current commitment to Columbia on a scholarship.

“He went to visit this weekend and said he didn’t feel comfortable walking around and that there were a lot of protests that seemed unmanageable at best,” the anonymous user posted. “He is starting to question his decision and now I’m panicking.”

Over 500 parents responded to the post, many of whom said they would not send their children to school there due to recent events. “The school couldn’t pay me to send my child there,” wrote one parent. “The displayed hate is sickening.”

Columbia University declined to comment on how the protests are impacting its fall enrollment.

During a Congressional hearing in April, however, President Shafik defended how the university responded to events on campus and has prioritized the safety of its students.

“We do not, and will not, tolerate antisemitic threats, images, and other violations,” Shafik said. “We have enforced, and we will continue to enforce, our policies against such actions.”

Shafik said that she believes the university can “confront antisemitism and provide a safe campus environment for our community while simultaneously supporting religious academic exploration and freedom.”

The school remains at the epicenter of the demonstrations, where recently it banned from campus a student protest leader who in January said in a video that “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” (He later apologized.) More than 100 Israeli students wrote to school authorities saying they felt unsafe on the campus because of the general atmosphere at the school.

Columbia’s Senate –- a policy-making body representing faculty, students and administrative staff –- passed a resolution late Friday to investigate the university leadership’s handling of the protests. The protesters at Columbia have been demanding the school cut ties with Israeli academic institutions and disinvest from Israel-linked entities, as the death toll climbs from Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Protesters at other campuses have  similar demands.

Brian Taylor, a managing partner at private admissions coach company Ivy Coach, said the company has seen little change in where students are enrolling, despite the protests, except for one clear pivot.

“If the student was admitted to multiple Ivy league schools, then they’re not going to choose Columbia,” he said. “But if a student only got accepted to Columbia – if that’s the best school they got into – they’re still going to go.”

Taylor said some students who work with Ivy Coach called the day 100 students were arrested at Columbia’s protests to see if they had a better chance of getting off of their waitlist and admitted to the school.

“It’ll probably be pretty easy to get off the Columbia waitlist this year,” he said.

Still, he added “these encampments are obviously doing schools quite the disservice.”

At the same time, however, another student working with Top Tier Admissions said they decided to commit to Columbia despite the protests.

“Definitely one of the things that drew me to Columbia was the spirit of activism and the great political science professors that have a legacy there,” the student said. “I was a bit concerned about the administration as they’ve shown and continue to show their lack of care for students and the student voice. [But] I ultimately decided to enroll here because the same kind of thing is happening at every school at this point.”

Summer visits

The practice of reconsidering which universities to attend may be even higher for high school juniors who have yet to formally apply, according to Doe. As families gear up for college visits this summer, she said some are changing up the names on their list because of the controversies the schools have faced.

“We started seeing some parents in the past five years say that they don’t want their kid looking at Yale because New Haven isn’t safe,” she said. “But now we have people saying, ‘I don’t even care so much about Ivies because politically they’d have an easier time elsewhere.’”

One junior in high school who is working with Top Tier Admissions said he was originally focused on getting into Ivy League schools but is applying elsewhere now due to how some of the schools have handled antisemitism on their campuses.

“As of this moment, if Columbia handed me a full scholarship and admission right this instant, I would turn them down without a second thought,” the student said. “I would reject these universities because, above all, I want to feel safe and accepted where I go to school.”

Doe said she’s seen other students and parents “edge away” from visiting certain schools, such as the University of Pennsylvania following reports of antisemitic activity on campus since 2021. In December, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill announced that she was stepping down amid months of pressure.

At the same time, Harvard University applications dropped 5% this year, according to March figures that offered early clues into how the Ivy League school’s reputation has held up during its own period of historic turmoil. It faced a massive crisis last fall as its response to an anti-Israel letter was criticized by some powerful alumni and politicians.

Claudine Gay, the first Black president in Harvard history, stepped down in January amid controversy over her academic writings and performance at a congressional hearing on antisemitism. While the university has denounced antisemitism, it is still under investigation by the House Education Committee for related allegations.

But Harvard’s low admission rate – up to 3.58% from 3.41% last year, its second lowest in the school’s history – suggests demand to attend Harvard has not weakened dramatically.

Finding the right fit

A high school guidance counselor based on Long Island, New York, said some Jewish families in her community made decisions early on about where to apply based on how school administrations handled events following October 7, such as taking a prompt response in condemning the terrorist act or looking at colleges that banned Students for Justice in Palestine, an organization that advocates for Palestinian solidarity.

“The resounding message is that it is important to be at a college with a Hillel or Chabad and a strong Jewish community because you will find your people regardless of the larger ‘tone’ of the college,” she told CNN.

Hillel and Chabad are Jewish organizations with cultural and religious affiliations where Jewish students can go to connect with each other.

Anna Ivey, a college admissions counselor, said this is not uncommon when controversial issues arise. Some students, for example, have reconsidered where to attend school for various reasons in recent years, such as when abortion laws changed in some states.

“At the end of the day, people have very different sensibilities,” Ivey said. “Families can decide what matters to them and what source of authority they want to pay attention to.”

Nonetheless, she said, some families are still “seriously debating” where to put deposits down in the next few days.

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