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.
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.
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.
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.
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.