The Admissions Arms Race, 2019 ed.

Recently-released statistics for the 2019 cycle show long-term trends intensifying

The Education Department’s recently-released data on the 2019 application cycle shows the escalating application activity seen in the 2010s ratcheting up. Given how a single extra successful application may lower the cost of college by several thousands of dollars, a student who decides to invest their time and an extra ~$50 application fee to add a school to their Common App list is making a rational economic decision. This rational individual behavior when performed en masse leads to plunging yields and enrollment planning issues for colleges. After COVID and widening test optional policy, this trend is likely to become even more extreme. The 2019 results set the baseline for the pre-COVID/pre-NACAC-settlement enrollment environment so we will spend several posts surveying the data and drawing some conclusions.

Highlights:

  • Applications and acceptances continue their rise in 2019
  • Acceptance rates are roughly flat and, along with a similarly flat number of students enrolling in selective schools, yields logically need to fall
  • We will go through the steps in calculating industry-wide yield because some commonly-cited numbers look too high

Absolute number of applications continues to increase

The ever-rising number of applications seen throughout the 2010s continued in 2019

College applications total 2017 2018 2019

2019 +1.9% vs 2018

For reference, slightly over 8 million applications were submitted in the 2009 cycle. The 2019 number of 11.5 million represents a 44% increase over 2009, with the decade seeing a 3.7% average annual increase. While this isn’t Silicon Valley-level growth, it’s strong and sustained and outpaces college Net Cost inflation significantly.

This took place in an environment of falling overall enrollment: during the period, full-time undergraduate numbers fell by 7%. That said, the total number of full-time students aged 25 or less was almost exactly the same in 2019 as 2009 (8.5 million), which is the more relevant metric considering we are focussing on the traditional high-school-to-college route here. So there are fewer students enrolling but the most important demographic to the application cycle is static.

(The 2010 trends are presented here.)

As does the number of acceptances

With a rising number of applications, colleges overall are forced to accept more applicants because of the mathematics of yield.

College acceptances 20178 2018 2019

Total acceptances 2019 +4.4% v 2018

Again putting this in context, a decade ago in 2009, colleges issued 4.6 million acceptances. The 2019 number represents a 43% increase over that 2009 figure, just about the same growth as the number of applications.

Admissions rates about flat

The applications and acceptances numbers imply that admissions percentages will be roughly flat.

College acceptance rates 2017 2018 2019

The 2019 rates were almost exactly the same as 2009 (57.2%). This statistic has stayed within a tight bound (55-57%) throughout the last decade, with the 2011 cycle being the most selective and, while 2019 selectivity was a tad looser, the operating assumption should be that the US average will remain in this range until proven otherwise.

This is a US average. Rates at highly selective schools will be examined in a later post.

Enrollment numbers

So who do these numbers apply to? Roughly 5 million Americans begin a full-time, part-time or certificate educational program in a given year – a number that has held steady in recent years. Of that total, 2.4 million commence a full-time undergrad degree program, with several hundred thousand more starting part-time. The 2.4 million figure needs to be broken down further, though, because 0.8 million of those students enter open enrollment programs. A 2-year school like the Milwaukee Area Technical College educates over 15,000 students, but it is open enrollment and as a result reports zero applications and admissions. While there are exceptions, the application and admissions picture generally applies to the remaining full-time students, the 1.6 million who attend selective institutions. (Selective here applies to any school that requires an application and reports the number to the Department of Education.)

2019’s proportion of selective to open admissions headcount was similar to preceding years.

Yield

The 6.52 million acceptance letters mailed out by colleges led to enrollment of 1.56 million full-time students. We have seen some common rules-of-thumb that college yields generally fall around 30%, but including only selective college enrollments as should be done generates a lower yield, in the mid 20s. This metric has been falling.

The yield in 2009 was 34%, for reference. Yields have seen year-over-year declines every single cycle since 2010 (except for a slight rise in 2015). 2019 data points to further yield declines in the future even before we account for anecdotal reports of 2021 application surges.

More applications, more acceptances, lower yield and more enrollment uncertainty.

In our next post on 2019 admissions, we will look a bit more at the implications of declining yield and increasing acceptances per student.

You can also find this piece and other materials at the CTAS Higher Ed Business Substack.