A little bit of background. I'm new here (well, I saw this forum a couple years back, but I only just created my account) and in the process of applying to a polisci phd in the US. I'm an international student, and as of yet I've taken the GRE and the TOEFL, plus my writing sample is pretty much done, so I'm like halfway there I think (I only need to write the SOPs and talk to some faculty about my LORs). I know the application process hasn't started, so do not think of this thread as dedicated to the fall 2021 admission process. I just wanted to hear your thoughts on what you'll think happen December through February, and how you think it'll be impacted by the ongoing pandemic. I was surprised that there wasn't a thread like this already in the polisci forum (the only one I found was that uncertainty thread, but it was dedicated to the fall 2020 cycle and only for international students), so I'll start :)
Supply: I think this is the most straightforward category, so I'll start with it. I think it is pretty much obvious less offers will be handed out, for two reasons. First, universities will have less resources to work with (less undergrad enrollment, less grants, etcetera), so GSASs will probably force departments to decrease the incoming cohorts. And second, departments will know that people will not likely pass on their offers (due to economic uncertainty), and as the yield will be higher, to even achieve their normal cohort goals they would need to make substantially less offers (and, again, they will want a smaller number of grad students this year). I don't know by how much the supply of offers will decrease, but if I had to guess I'd say if they normally hand out like 30-4 offers, they'll lower it to like 15-7. Ouch. I thought that some departments might cancell their admission processes this year altoghether (as Princeton's Sociology department did), but as of yet I haven't seen any instances of this. If you know any departments that will, please do point them out.
Demand: Now this is a bit trickier. In principle, it should be simple: economic crisis -> more people want to enter grad school. However, this is not a regular crisis, so therefore common wisdom might not hold up. First, it does not seem so clear as to when this crisis will be over. I think I'm not alone in that I originally thought this was going to be over by May. Now it is clear that it will not be over until there is a vaccine, and who knows when that'll be done. So people might not want to even think of applying before this crisis is over, which could hold domestic demand steady. Second, every paper that studies grad school enrollment and economic crises centers around MBAs and other MAs, rather than PhDs. I think that it is not unreasonable to expect an increase in the demand for those types of degrees. But a 6 year PhD in political science is not something that someone does in the middle of their careers (in contrast to something like MAPSS and QMSS, which I expect to experience an increase in demand). So, I think that domestic demand might increase a bit, but not too much. In contrast, I do think that international demand will decrease. First, this whole situation will probably instill a bit of fear on every international applicant (even myself, buy I remain unmoved in my resolve to go to gradschool), and a whole lot of uncertainty in the process (for example, who knows when you'll be able to get a visa?). And second, there is the whole Tr*mp variable. I have read that international applications have not taken too much of a hit in the midst of the most anti-foreigner administration in recent american history, but the uncertainty around the election might just do it. Even if he looses (which I so want), we might not be sure until the period in which applications close. Therefore, I think international applicants will decrease significantly.
GREs: I'm lucky enough that I could still afford to pay for the GRE, and that I have a suitable environment to take it at home. I don't think everyone will be so lucky. I think it is likely that most programs will make it optional this year (I think UPenn and Chicago have already announced this for their polisci applicants, if someone knows of another case please point it out), but this will generate a pretty unjust situation. A first group in principle will not be affected (people who took it before this crisis), but the rest will. I think that taking it at home makes the test significantly easier (I'm sure my scores should have not been this high), which of course benefits people who a) can still afford to spend like US$300 in the test + score reports, b) live in tranquil residential areas, and c) have a reliable internet connection. People that do not satisfy one of those criteria will not be able to take the test, and therefore choose not to include it on their applications. I am sure that no matter how much universities say that they'll consider every application regardless of score, there will certainly be a bias towards people that hand in a good score. This will benefit the first and second group (but, as the latter will tend to have a better score, the people who took it before the crisis will also be affected). All in all, I expect an significant increase in the median incoming GRE score, both as a result of more selective processes and of the new at-home format.
Funding offers: Difficult to predict, but I think they will stay the same, at least for good departments. I think that T20 depts will prefer to make less offers, than to get a rep for being stingy. Middling depts might make more offers without funding, but I'm not sure. Public universities might decrease funding packages for all grad students, but I'm not sure about this either (they will probably fire some of the adjunct faculty or increase undergrad tuition before).
Duration: I think the lenght of the decision process will increase significantly. I think we won't hear the final offers until like late march, rather than mid february. Please feel free to disagree, but I think the selection committees will still be stuck at home, which will make coordination between profs and bureaucrats slower.
Departments: I think T10 departments will be affected negatively by all of this, as they won't be able to admit all of the grad students they need to (in the future, there will not be enough TAs and RAs to satisfy internal demand, which might be good for MA students!). I do not think their incoming cohorts will be better (except for GRE scores, as mentioned above), as they are already so selective that I do not see how their students could get even more competitive. On the other side, the rest of the T20, and especially the T40, will be significantly benefited by all of this. As more of the 'best applicants' will be available (due to smaller cohorts in T10 departments), their cohorts will be significantly more competitive. Yes, they will have less incoming students; but they will make up for this with a much better incoming cohort (and the prestige that comes with it!) Feel free to disagree about this.
Summary: we're doomed hahahah. The thing is, I'm not even sure how long these changes will last. Therefore, I think it is unwise to postpone our applications until next year. Less offers this year will mean that a lot of demand will build up, which will definitely impact subsequent years. I think only in like 5 years, things will get back to normal.
That's it! Sorry for the length, but I sorted out my own thoughts while I was writing it. What do you think? Feel free to add your own category :)