In only two years, the long-established patterns of college admissions have been completely disrupted. This is widely considered to be a result of the pandemic, but the pandemic only accelerated trends that had been building for a decade.
A notable effect of the last two admission cycles is that, while the majority of colleges struggled to reverse declining enrollment, top-tier institutions enjoyed a sharp rise in demand. Two distinct models of admissions have evolved — one for top-tier colleges and another for all the rest. As admission season approaches again, we at The College Planner,LLC advise that high school seniors and their parents understand and plan for the new status quo in admissions.
The Boom in Applications to Top-Tier Institutions
Although college enrollment is down in general, the most highly selective institutions are thriving. Since colleges accept about the same number of freshmen every year, the rising volume of applications submitted to these schools has resulted in plummeting admission rates. As evidence, the number of colleges that admitted less than 10% of their applicants rose from 9 in 2019 to 28 in 2022.
A main cause of this rise in applications is the shift to test-optional admissions policies. The test-optional movement was well underway prior to 2020, but the closure of test centers caused by the pandemic prevented students from taking the SAT and ACT exams that year. This forced even the most prestigious colleges to drop standardized test scores as a requirement for admission. Most colleges have indicated that they will retain their test-optional policies at least through 2023-24 if not indefinitely.
As a result of the adoption of test-optional policies, students aspiring to attend a top-tier school who didn’t perform well on tests saw an opportunity to rely more heavily on other aspects of their academic record like GPA and strength of curriculum. Many of them joined the already high number of applicants seeking admission to top schools. But this simply meant that more applicants would be disappointed, making admission rates fall.
Top-Tier Colleges Are More Selective Than Ever
Table A shows a set of top-tier schools that reported their Class of 2026 admissions data prior to June 30. They are all ranked among the top 50 schools on either the National Universities or National Liberal Arts College rankings in the College Edition of U.S. News & World Report for 2022.Table A shows their increasing selectivity over the last two years.
Admission Rates at Top-Tier Institutions
2019-20 and 2021-22 Compared
|Institution||Number of Applicants||Number Admitted||2019-20 Admit %||2021-22 Admit %|
|UNC Chapel Hill||57,198||4,400||25||8|
The Decline in College Enrollment
Despite the upturn in applications at the most highly selective schools, there has been a steady drop in general college enrollment that began well before the pandemic. This decline is the primary reason for the turbulence in admissions at many colleges. Data released in May by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that 662,000 fewer students enrolled in college in spring 2022 than a year earlier, a 5%. Figure A, below, shows that undergraduate enrollment peaked in 2010 at 18.1 million students and fell to 15.9 million in 2020, the last cycle before the pandemic.
Source: Education Data Initiative
The Financial Condition of Colleges
All indications are that top-tier schools will continue to thrive, but they represent less than 5% of the nearly 4,000 post-secondary institutions in the country. Declining enrollment has devastated the financial stability of many small and mid-sized public and private colleges.
A number of colleges were forced to cease operations prior to and during the pandemic. Another 20% are expected to close their doors in the next few years due to the combined impact of changing demographics, state government disinvestment, unrealistic tuition rates, the lingering effects of the pandemic, and inadequate endowment funds.
Making matters worse is the fact that, for the first time in generations, many Americans are questioning if college is still the path to a secure, well-paying career. According to Stephanie Saul, writing in the New York Times on May 22, “The ongoing enrollment crisis at U.S. colleges and universities deepened in spring 2022, raising concerns that a fundamental shift is taking place in attitudes toward the value of a college degree.”
According to Inside Higher Education, the outlook for enrollment looks even dimmer as we approach a “demographic cliff” in 2025, when a 15% drop in high school seniors is expected as a result of the reduced birth rate during and after the 2008 recession.
The precariousness of the finances of many schools should concern students and families who are now researching colleges. To the intimidating set of variables already involved should be added the financial condition of the schools on a student’s College List.
Do Admission Rates Matter?
Trends in admissions aren’t something that families can afford to ignore. Admission rates are a key factor in the calculation of college rankings. Although rankings are an imperfect measure of a college’s quality, they serve many people as a proxy for quality. Since rankings affect the level of demand for a college, they also impact its financial viability.
Students shouldn’t throw more than a couple of applications atop the pile at highly competitive “dream” schools. Instead, they should seek admission to sound, reputable, colleges that must increase their enrollment. In addition to a more welcoming set of acceptance criteria, these schools are strongly inclined to provide financial aid in order to increase their tuition revenue.
As experienced college admissions consultants, the professionals at The College Planner understand the new landscape of college admissions. We guide our students through the maze of admissions all the way to enrollment in the college that fits them just right. The College Planner has placed students in a wide range of excellent colleges including Tufts, Northeastern, Catholic University, Skidmore, Boston University, Boston College, Brown, Fairfield, Fordham, Holy Cross, Colby, George Washington, William & Mary, Penn State, Villanova, Wake Forest, and many others.