Part 3 of our early look at the ‘22 cycle focusses on a quartet of thriving schools
Some colleges seem to get hot with high school students. Is there any rhyme or reason to why they climb the popularity escalator? We are going to look at four schools enjoying particularly good 2022 recruiting seasons and suggest that their results aren’t a coincidence at all.
Colgate University was a successful and stable institution in the years before COVID. It accepted about a quarter of its applicants and about a third of those applicants registered and attended, year after year. Until 2021. The school had been receiving 8-10 thousand applications annually, with a slight uptick in 2019. In 2021, it received over 17,500; this year, over 21,000. The school combines a very attentive and distinguished faculty with a let’s say active social scene — and the campus is beautiful. It’s understandable why it would be desirable. But Colgate’s been that way for years. The change in the last two cycles has been like whiplash. What changed?
This article interviews staff and undergrads working in Colgate’s admissions office, who point to switching to no-loan financial aid and to test optional as potential sources of the applications surge. It’s unlikely a technical change to financial aid practices could lead to such a significant upswing, while tying the increase to test optional policy has some merit. But many colleges have gone test optional and, while it is certainly one cause of the applications surge, perhaps no college has seen quite the explosion of interest that Colgate has. The interviews don’t seem to offer any immediate factor that plausibly explaining this surge, though of course it’s possible there are good reasons for it that went unmentioned.
Given what we know now, Colgate seems to be benefitting from some serendipity. Teenagers are fickle and follow trends. Colgate is an appealing place to study and it’s in fashion.
The Colgate Admissions Office. Where the Magic Happens.
Northeastern University, long known for its ambition to climb the selectivity ladder, embarked on a concerted drive to achieve its newfound status a long time ago. Trends immediately before and during COVID were all favorable for the school. It began admitting under 20% of applicants in 2018 but the current admissions cycle turbocharged the effort, with the university notching a 7% admit rate, something the school’s leadership probably never envisioned was possible.
Just as with Colgate, Northeastern is understandably popular. It’s big, located in an attractive city, and uses a “co-op” model that, in today’s career-centric approach to education, should probably be emulated by many more schools. But all of these virtues were in place several years ago. Why now? Again, it seems as if teenagers’ sense for fashionability is important. “It’s a thing.”
Macalester College, located in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, is maybe the least well-known of the quartet of schools covered in this post. With ~2,000 students, it fits the size and mold of many other small liberal arts colleges and, in the early 2010s, seemed entrenched in that decent but unspectacular zone so many liberal arts institutions occupy. An admit rate of around 40%, a yield in the low 20% range, a fairly low profile outside of its region.
While its admissions was showing signs of tightening in 2019, the number of applications it had been receiving each year stayed in the 6,000 range, just as it had in years past. Then, in 2021, the number of students applying surged by almost half, to 9,049, increasing by another 600 in 2022.
Macalester implemented a set of long-considered admissions changes in 2021: it went test optional, eliminated applications fees and introduced an early action stage, which doesn’t affect the tally of applications but allowed the college to market itself to already-admitted and clearly-interested students in the first few months of the year. Macalester’s VP for Admissions, Jeff Allen, also points to recruiting success in California and the rest of the Pacific coast, tying to the observation made in our last post about national application volumes spilling over to selective schools in the Midwest. Unlike with Colgate, there seems to be a clear proximate cause of Macalester’s recent success, a considered set of recruiting actions executed to increase student interest.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren at a 2019 campaign event at Macalester
One of the most remarkable admissions stories in the last few cycles has been Florida State University’s. Florida State (FSU) is utterly different from the other schools highlighted in this piece: a big public university with about 30,000 undergrads and a major college football program, and one that was long eclipsed by its rival flagship school in Gainesville. It also functions within a decidedly centralized Florida higher education system consciously focused on educating state residents (and keeping them in state after they graduate).
A few years ago, Florida State’s profile conformed to this picture. It admitted a bit over half of applicants (58% in 2016) and about a third of admitted applicants enrolled. These are typical stats for a good but unspectacular public university. This began to change in 2018, before COVID, when the university notched a big change in the number of applications – the number shot up to 50,000 from about 35,000 the year before – and the admissions office admitted just 37% of applicants, down by more than 20%. The students coming to campus also showed higher levels of academic achievement – the typical FSU student today has a combined SAT score in the region of 1350 and a weighted high school GPA well above 4.
Many students aren’t aware of how Florida State is evolving, as shown by this February article quoting shocked rejected applicants. The university accepted just 23% of applicants from over 90,000 applications this year and claimed big improvements in both academic qualifications and progress towards its goal of enrolling more first-generation students.
With the surge in applications, how enrollments handle yield questions is on the front-burner. FSU’s admissions office anticipated this, its admit rate assuming a very conservative (ie low) yield of 27%, below historical rates. In addition to those admitted, FSU chose to defer a full 5,000 applicants, more than the total number of undergrads studying at Colgate and Macalester put together, which offers a good way to manage yield and fill seats.
Two other things to note:
– FSU requires standardized tests. Policy on this point is dictated centrally by the state of board governors and is not decentralized. So FSU presents a significant instance of strong application growth with testing required.
– FSU competes aggressively on price. Cost of attendance for Florida residents is a bit under $24k and, for out-of-staters, it is $38k with limited discounting. For an upper middle class New Jersey high school student, to take an example, attending FSU or in-state options like Rutgers or Rowan is a push financially. The three universities cost almost the same.
We’ve repeatedly pointed to the strong business performance of many large southern public universities. Florida State is a case in point.
Cheerleading at an FSU football game
A common thread?
So we have a quartet of schools, public and private, big and small, cold weather and warm weather, located in rural areas, cities and medium-size towns. What ties these together? Is this pure happenstance? Let’s turn back to the year 2016 and dial up the retention stats – the percentage of entering students returning for a second year at a college:
These are very strong results, but let’s dive a little deeper. Retention is a bottom-line result that combines several drivers, not just how happy students are at a college, but whether they can hack the classes and whether they can afford to keep attending. It is a socioeconomically-skewed stat that also heavily favors schools with mostly full-time students (fewer than half of students that begin college part-time are still enrolled a year later). To use retention as a performance metric, schools need to be compared to their competitors with similar profiles. For example, a 4-year school reporting a 70% retention rate is mediocre but a community college at 70% with many part-time and commuter students is doing superbly.
Highly selective schools typically notch retention rates of 96% and above. The likes of Duke, MIT and Stanford lose maybe 1-2% of their students after the first year. But in 2015, the entering class measured by the 2016 stat, none of the three private schools in the chart above were highly selective (Macalester admitted 37%, Colgate 27%, Northeastern 28%). Their retention is very much higher than what one would expect based on their admissions and yield and points to outperformance when students arrive on campus.
The Florida State number is also revealing. Big-name flagship public universities like the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia or UCLA have very high retention (all at 97% in 2019). Florida State isn’t quite at that level but 93% is close and, in 2015, it admitted 56% (!) of applicants, many more than these three publics admit. This level of retention given FSU’s admissions and yield shows a seriously competent program in operation.
All four schools featured here are surely benefitting from serendipity, fickle teenage fashion trends, and strong recruiting and marketing performance. But they are also delivering a very strong product to their students, as shown by their retention, and have been doing so for a while. Their market success is based on a history of high levels of student satisfaction and success. They made their luck.