2022 Admissions: What does it all mean?

Tying together our series on the current cycle

 

Drawing some observations from the recent posts looking at this year’s admissions cycle, we’ll try and tie things together to put the trends in context and see what all this means for the business of higher ed and its students.

 

Applications Surge

 

About 13 million applications to selective colleges (those with admissions processes) were submitted in 2022, a record high, coming from ~1.5 million students.  In 2020, the last year with comprehensive data, 11.5 million were filed.

 

Why are students applying to more and more schools?  Partly it’s a back-door to price discovery and competition in a mystifying college pricing landscape. But for those applying to highly-selective colleges, the surge in applications at these schools – many of them using similar homogenized pricing systems – is unlikely to be driven by financial concerns. The surge in this group is needed to offset falling admissions rates, which renders confidence in getting into a target school foolhardy. So students are likely behaving this way for different reasons, depending on their situation. Whichever of these motivations are prime, the driver is stress, whether caused by the price of college, both its uncertainty and how high it is, or by status anxiety and a more competitive post-graduate job market.

 

Colleges will be forced to respond with automation: Combining this surge with the fact that colleges are unable to raise prices as rapidly as inflation and the ebbing of the large COVID federal government relief plan, the situation will leave colleges budget constrained and with too few staff to keep pace with these applications.  This will almost certainly lead to more automated and impersonal admissions practices.  Students entering this system need to understand that they are stepping foot into an overburdened process spitting out results that are puzzling, often unfair, rife with outright errors, and driven by impersonal algorithmic decision making.

 

UCLA, the applications capital. UCLA received just short of 150,000 applications this year, beating its prior high of 139,490 in 2021. This appears to be the most ever received by a US institution. Since receiving over 100k applications for the first time in 2017, the university has surpassed that mark every cycle.

 

College essays are in their twilight: Combine this impersonal admissions process, driven by economic pressures, with AI language models that are becoming ever more proficient — literally in the seconds during which you read these words — we expect the importance of the college essay to shrink drastically.  The same goes for high school teacher recommendations.  Automation will gradually become more important in both the writing (please take a minute and click on that link) and reading of essays and recommendations, making them less useful as evaluation tools, until they become minor application items.

 

Automation requires an efficient, standardized way of comparing students:  Something like a national test produced centrally with comparable results across states and high schools. This needs to be invented.

 

Kidding aside, the test optional movement – widely-seen as a significant if partial driver of the applications surge – seems to be a case study in generating unintended consequences. Arguments in favor of test optional admissions have seemingly all revolved around equity and saving students time and money.  This leaves one of their central virtues – how they allow the college search process to be more efficient – out of the picture.

 

We noted how MIT’s ballyhooed decision to once again require testing stemmed from an environment where the school was receiving a record-breaking and unmanageable number of applications.  Putting yourself in the shoes of the MIT President, ask yourself whether you’d rather devote more of the university’s budget to the admissions office or instead invest more in the labs of one of your research outfits.  The question answers itself.  The MIT decision is surface evidence of the budget choice made by the university. We anticipate MIT is only the first of many to come to the same conclusion.

 

MIT Economics Professor Bengt Holmstrom accepting his 2016 Nobel Prize in Stockholm. A complete display of all the MIT Nobel laureates in just the field of economics is here. (You’ll have to scroll down the page to see them all.) Should MIT prioritize supporting researchers like Holmstrom or maybe plough more money into the admissions office so they can stay test optional?

 

We can’t stop students from applying to more colleges but can we at least stop adding fuel to the trend?: There are numerous theories out there about colleges’ true motivations for moving to test optional – from allowing them to admit more legacy students to making it easier to meet demographic goals to increasing tuition revenues to simply shielding enrollment offices from a performance metric – but the one altruistic goal in all of this – saving students the energy, time and money associated with test-taking – is not being realized.  Many ambitious students take the test regardless. Displacing effort no longer spent on testing is the effort of submitting more applications, which is necessary in the more chaotic, unpredictable college search and matching marketplace partly caused by test optional.

 

Not all institutions are the same: it’s understandable that a lightly-selective one, say a school admitting 75% or 85% of its applicants, would choose not to require tests. But applicants to schools with tighter admit rates don’t seem to be benefitting from test optional practices AT ALL.

 

Bifurcating admit rates

 

Dropping admit rates for some: An earlier post covered the way the college enrollment market was bifurcating between highly-selective and -desirable schools with admit rates under 20% and less selective schools, often facing enrollment challenges forcing them to gradually decrease their selectivity, cut prices, or lose enrollment.  Final data isn’t in, of course, but the 2022 cycle seems to have put this trend on steroids.  2022 was partly about rising inequality – inequality among colleges.

 

Some colleges are thriving – for good reason: Among those thriving in this environment are four institutions with notably steep increases in application volume and student interest. Maybe no college in the country is as hot as Colgate, in upstate New York. Joining Colgate on our list were Northeastern in Boston, Macalester in the twin cities in Minnesota, and the lone public university, Florida State, long operating in the shadow of the flagship University of Florida but now emerging as a prestigious large program. While serendipity and teenage fashions are always a factor in these trends, one of the more heartening parts of this series was seeing how these four schools deserved their success. Each is running a highly effective undergrad program, with very strong retention rates pointing to prepared students happy at their place of learning.

 

Colgate University’s admissions rate has plunged from 23% in 2019 before COVID to 12% in the 2022 cycle. It also consistently posts retention rates just shy of the Ivy League’s.

 

Metrics in a competitive business line will be gamed relentlessly and ingeniously

 

Balancing admit and yield rates: Enrollment offices efforts to keep admit rates low and yields high are theoretically in tension.  We looked at several schools which have found workarounds.  Some are now pulling more than half of their entering classes from the binding Early Decision round while admitting very low ratios in the Regular Decision round.  How low the Regular Decision admit rates for selective schools have become isn’t widely known and should cause many students to re-think whether it’s even worth applying at that stage.  This practice allows colleges to post solid yields while rejecting a large majority of applicants. Barnard College in New York, which just received a record number of overall applications, serves as an example: its daunting Regular Decision admit rate of 5% this year is more selective than several Ivy League universities’ overall rates.

 

Other institutions have more bespoke approaches that help both the admit and yield metrics simultaneously.  USC’s practice may – this is speculation – help with this: it has one Regular Decision round and then defers thousands of applicants from the Fall semester to the following Spring semester, inviting them into the Fall term out of this Spring pool on a case-by-case basis.

 

Barnard College in New York. Barnard is one of several private colleges that now admit a majority of their entering class from the Early Decision round. Its Early Decision round (admit rate: 29%) is now quite a bit less selective than its Regular Decision round (5%).

The recruiting calendar goes 365

 

The gaming of admit rates and yields is helping to extend the enrollment calendar across all months of the academic year.  The Early Decision round’s greater importance at certain schools shifts recruitment into the preceding fall.  Practices like USCs and the isolated beginnings of Summer Poaching – colleges soliciting students after the May 1 deadline – are extending the calendar into the summer.

 

Surging wait lists: Another trend pushing recruitment into the summer is the growth in wait list sizes.  Data on this practice is fragmented so we narrowed in on several northeastern schools, mostly in Massachusetts, and walked through the reasons why the enrollment offices would choose to wait list so many.  Interestingly, what started off looking like irrational risk aversion by the end of the analysis looked entirely rational.  It is rational for mid-selectivity schools like Stony Brook on Long Island and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, seeing that both almost missed enrollment targets by significant margins within the last three years, saved only by their wait lists.  It is rational for a highly-selective college like Wellesley to potentially help optimize its academic, demographic and financial targets.  One reader pointed out that colleges like Wellesley may also wait list legacy applicants instead of rejecting them for alumni relations reasons.  And it is rational for Boston University, a newly test-optional school, to deal with highly variable yields associated with COVID’s onset.

 

Worcester Polytechnic in Massachusetts. Worcester was able to avoid an enrollment shortfall in 2019 through effective use of its wait list.

 

Wait until June?: It isn’t quite there, but we are approaching an environment in which a student can wait until after graduating from high school to conduct a college search.  They won’t be able to attend, say, Dartmouth, but they’ll have options, including flagship state universities.  While universities like Michigan or the UCal schools are booked, there are numerous state universities currently on the NACAC openings list, including the flagship universities in New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, Maine, Missouri and Nevada (UNLV).  (Ohio State is interestingly also listed but that may be an administrative error.)  Along with numerous other private and public schools, this presents an interesting menu of late-breaking options. And, because any revenue is better than the big fat zero that an unfilled seat represents financially, the schools should be very accommodating on price if they operate logically.

 

Waitlist side effects: If the schools are each enlarging their wait lists for rational reasons, the impact on the enrollment marketplace as a whole isn’t necessarily favorable:

 

  • Bad for the wait-listees: The chances of being picked off a wait list in many cases are minimal and, in all cases, are very uncertain (that’s why colleges use them!), placing students in an uncomfortable state of suspension.  Wise students may be best served by deciding at the beginning of the application process NOT to accept any wait list invites on principle.  In most cases, nothing will be lost.
  • Wait lists draw students up the prestige-and-selectivity ladder away from less selective institutions, often ones with enrollment pressures. And it does so late in the enrollment season, leaving less time to react.  It’s a factor working to the advantage of the richer, more selective schools.

 

Risk On

 

Surging applications seem to be generating yield uncertainty: Logically, a marketing funnel with a large number of initial prospects but ultimately few sales conversions leads to greater variability in generating customers.  This contrasts with a more stable funnel with fewer initial prospects but a larger number of sales conversions.

 

Does this logic actually apply in real life?  The experience of Stony Brook, Boston University and Worcester Polytechnic in recent cycles suggests it does.  We want to emphasize that these three institutions were covered in our series not because they experienced a crisis but because they are reasonably transparent in releasing wait list information – so the three were picked without any view on any enrollment issues.  Yet all three, out of the five surveyed, had near crises due to yield instability, just in the span of two admissions cycles.  And not all of them could avoid an enrollment miss: it looks like Boston University actually was short of its 2020 enrollment quota in the midst of COVID, an event that may have influenced the school to abandon its historical practice of limited wait listing.

 

The growing number of applications across higher ed has led lower and lower yields for almost all schools.  This in turn results in a situation where even a big-name school like Boston University experiences plunges or steep rises in its yield for subgroups of its application pool on a year-to-year basis.  Swelling absolute numbers of applications appear to amplify commercial risks for the majority of colleges.

 

This connection is only suggestive and not fully proven, but theory and evidence are definitely not in conflict. If the link is correct, we should see more colleges in the throes of an enrollment crisis each summer, busy scrambling for students while making sure the news doesn’t get out into the public arena.  And a school with a high profile like Boston University’s will likely be among them.

 

Boston University on the Charles River. BU was forced to access its wait list both before COVID in 2019 and during the pandemic in 2020 as yield levels for subgroups of applicants fluctuated.

Musical chairs

 

The number of high schoolers entering selective colleges – those requiring applications – is close to flat.  Yet a subset of schools is enjoying massive student interest. Does this have any impact on the undergrad industry or society as a whole? While there may be some unknown effect on overall tuition revenue, stepping back from the admissions hullaballoo doesn’t make it look like a major happening.  Some students will go to college B instead of college A and others will go to college C instead of college B.  So what?  We defy anyone to make solid predictions about the academic or career impact on students of any of this.  But the one undoubted negative is that it sucks more student and family energy into a college matching process with murky societal benefits.

TL;DR

 

Applications are surging, forcing colleges to adopt more automated admissions processes in the face of budget constraints. This surge is not spread evenly across higher ed but is focussed on a set of increasingly selective schools, often schools perceived as desirable for sound, legitimate reasons. As the industry bifurcates into the very successful and the challenged, pressure intensifies on enrollment offices, which respond in part by devising increasingly clever ways to game the all-important admissions/yield metrics. As a byproduct, the gaming works to expand the recruitment calendar from a few months across the full year. The applications surge is likewise sharpening enrollment risks for all but the most selective schools, leading to more intensive risk-mitigation on their part, including larger wait lists, again with the byproduct of extending the recruitment calendar.

 

The result is very much “America Today”: some people and schools do benefit but the intensifying game of musical chairs isn’t making the overall climate, on both the student and college sides, a very happy one.

 

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