The Future of College Admission?

Let me start by saying this: I’m no futurist. My family is quick to point out I’m wrong multiple times a day on a variety of subjects (game outcomes, how long to bake chicken, etc.) My co-workers can also enumerate many occasions when I’ve been dead wrong about direction, strategy, and approach.

But recently, whether it’s a virtual panel or webinar, a television, radio, or podcast interview, or even last week’s (virtual) fireside chat, the big question seems to be, “What’s the future of admission and enrollment?”

So, while I’m painfully aware that I don’t have all of the answers (and I’m not booking a flight to Vegas  to put cash on these predictions), I do see some distinct writing on the higher education wall for the year ahead.

(1) Most colleges will see fewer, or the same, rather than more applications this year.

Covid-19 hit colleges across the country extremely hard. Last week the National Clearinghouse published its most recent numbers. Overall enrollment is down 4%. Enrollment of first-year students is down 16.1% from 2019 (even more disturbing is that community colleges saw a 22.7% dip in enrollment).

As much as we’re all fatigued by this pandemic, it is not over. The financial impact on families, businesses, and communities is yet to be fully felt. As a result, I foresee 2021 seniors casting a narrower net when applying to college resulting in a lower application: student ratio.

Say what you will about testing, but those scores did provide a way for students to nod to schools and colleges to send them recruitment and application information. The mass cancellations and ensuing test-optional landslide has severely limited a big part of how colleges solicit applications through what we call “search.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not crying about the The College Board or ACT coffers taking a financial hit. However, this traditional source of names and leads did generate thousands of applications nationally in the past, and nothing to this point has proven to directly replace it.

Talk to any admission person and they’ll tout how they’ve stood up more virtual visits and reached higher numbers of students through online programming, tours, or sessions. This is a great silver lining of Covid for both the short- and long-term. However, student Zoom fatigue combined with colleges’ inability to host families on campus and travel to high schools and communities will further deflate applications overall.

Going test score optional (TSO) normally serves to increase applications. But we’ve never seen this many schools go TSO at the same time. My guess is some will see a bump due to this change in policy, but the majority will not.

(2) Admit rates at most schools will go up this year.

Sure. This will in part be a function of flat (or less) applications, but it’s also a response to what we’ve experienced over the last two semesters in higher education. As Clearinghouse data shows, many schools lost undergraduates this year. Translation: they took a major financial hit and need to find ways to recover.

Public universities are going to be under pressure to grow. Those with big brands will be counted on by their state to buoy their overall system. With the tail of Covid coming like Smaug’s in Lord of the Rings, state appropriations to public schools will inevitably be hit hard. Growth expectations, reduced appropriations, and family financial uncertainty as a result of the pandemic all point to more offers of admission to make (and especially to attempt to grow) enrollment.

At privates, especially non-research institutions, tuition is the life blood. Given Covid’s impact on retention and finances last spring and into this fall (not to mention growing trepidation about Spring 2021) I expect these colleges to admit more students in hopes of remedying recent enrollment/net tuition revenue loss.

Let me be clear. There are going to be exceptions to this. Ivy League and Ivy-like schools with multibillion-dollar endowments will likely not be affected as much, so please don’t email me in six months saying I predicted Princeton’s admit rate was going to double. But here again we’re reminded those places are outliers and anomalies, not the signposts, in American Higher Education.

(3) Yield in general declines nationally.

The number or percentage of students who accept an offer of admission and pay an enrollment deposit is known as yield. In recent years, NACAC reported the average yield rate is approximately 33% (College Transitions provides a helpful yield breakdown by institution). Oregon State’s Jon Boeckenstedt produced this visualization earlier this week, which provides even more insight on the challenges and trends with yield and “draw rates.”

Given financial, medical/ health, and travel (distance from home) concerns, as well as the likelihood of most colleges admitting more students, I project yield will again decrease at most schools around the country.

(4) International applications decrease.

In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity through the State Department’s Office of Overseas Schools to travel to consulates and embassies abroad speaking to Americans and their contacts about higher education in the U.S.

During this time, I’ve seen a palpable shift in the conversations about college in America. Other nations, including Canada, Australia, Spain, and the Netherlands, among others, have become far more competitive and aggressive in their recruitment of students around the world.

Add political rhetoric, less than glowing media coverage about the pandemic in the United States, and the fragility of this demographic (which has been a boon for American colleges and universities, particularly since the 2008 recession) only increases. College admission officers’ inability to travel abroad this year further exacerbates the issue– and strengthens predictions 1-3.

(5) Bigger waitlists = longer cycle.

Selective colleges are going to hedge their bets on yield rates. This means they will likely put even more students on waitlists and start pulling students earlier in the cycle (in other words, expect to see more mid-April admits as healthy colleges see deposits roll come in).

Higher education is an ecosystem. As schools continue build their classes through waitlist offers in May and June, they will be pulling those students away from other colleges. This activity and domino effect will extend deep into the summer, just as it did in 2020. We anticipated a more extended cycle as a result of NACAC’s CEPP adjustments and Covid has served to further elongate that timeline.

(Bonus) Gap year concern… not a thing.

I’m a Presbyterian and we normally either three or five points in a speech or article. But since so many have asked about gap years, I’ll include a bonus piece here. 

Harvard made news with 20% of their first-year students opting to take a gap year. This article lists a few other examples, such as Williams, Bates, and MIT, with big increases in gap year students. Understandably, since the press loves to cover schools like “Stanvard,” this has understandably raised concerns among 2021 high school graduates.

As I said earlier, I’ve been on a lot of panels with friends and colleagues from around the country lately. All of them (literally all of them) from schools with 7% to 77% admit rates, are saying the same thing: 2020 gap years are not “taking seats” from 2021 graduates.

Hopefully, everything I’ve laid out in this blog serves to reinforce one point—COLLEGES NEED STUDENTS! Now more than ever.

If the financial argument or the international argument or the health argument doesn’t convince you, here are Tech’s numbers. We granted about 130 gap years deferments. 49 of those will start this spring, 10 in the summer, and the rest next fall. We are not counting these students into our predictive model, but rather adding them to our new classes each term. In other words, they’re “extra seats” not “taking seats.”

Final Thoughts

If you are a junior, sophomore, ninth grader… all of this basically applies to you too. Higher education had its eye squarely on 2025 before the pandemic. Known as the “demographic cliff” we were all planning and preparing our administrations for a decrease in high school graduates, and therefore even more competition and enrollment instability. Covid has fast forwarded us toward the cliff. All of that to say, the future of higher education is trending towards higher admit rates and more options for students.

If you are a senior… I hope this gives you a bit of solace. If your goal in applying to college is to have choices and options (and it should be), I see that coming to fruition this year, assuming you choose a balanced list.

I know that high school is not wrapping up the way you’d hoped or envisioned (if you did envision this, please call me, as we’re working on predictive future models and I could use your help. Plus, we could make a killing in Vegas). However, if you can keep your head up, keep working hard in school and in your community, and maintain a long-term vision during a challenging time, I earnestly believe you’re going to come out of this better, stronger, and more prepared for wherever you end up in college next year.

If you are college counselor or college admission professional… Thank you! You’re probably not hearing that enough lately. We work under severe deadlines, many levels of scrutiny, and increasing pressure. If you’ve not heard it from anyone else this week, please slowly read this: THANK YOU! Thanks for all you are doing for your institution, students, and surrounding community. This is not easy work, but it is ineffably meaningful. Take care of yourself so you can keep taking care of those around you.

Covid is pushing and stretching us all. Throw in a contentious election season and divisive rhetoric on all mediums and it’s no wonder we are all exhausted. I hope in the days ahead you’ll find creative ways to renew, refresh, and share small moments of joy with those around you. Be well, friends.

The Basics of College Admission: Part 3

It’s good to know your limits. It’s good to understand when the best thing to do is step aside and let someone else handle things. It’s also hard to miss those moments when family members communicate these things gently (but clearly) in statements such as:

  • “Just hand me the remote. I’ll show you how to find that.”
  • “I think we are good to go on virtual school today. It might be better if you go into the office.”
  • “That’s not an aerial. That’s not even a somersault. Watch this!”

This also happens to me at work. I’m fortunate to have an incredibly talented team of colleagues and friends around me. So, when it comes to communication strategy, data analysis, file review training, technology enhancements, and much more, I’ve learned to let the experts lead.

In that spirit, I’m cutting this intro short so you can hear directly from my insightful and experienced colleagues about key elements of your college admission and application experience.

Activities and Contribution to Community

Ellery Kirkconnell (Senior Admission Counselor) helps you understand what admission counselors are really looking for when they read and discuss your involvement, influence, and impact outside of the classroom.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Activities & Contribution to Community – Ellery Kirkconnell” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Focus on what you’ve contributed to your school, community, or family. This section is critical, so don’t short sell your involvement or rely on your strong academic background. “Tell us more” is the rule of thumb!

Listen For: Ellery’s crystal ball predictions on how this section will be reviewed in light of Covid-19.

Key Quote: “Impact does not necessarily mean you were a president of an organization… elected official… or the captain of a sports team.”

Further Reading Viewing: Ellery’s YouTube clip on C2C.

Letters of Recommendation

Kathleen Voss (East Coast Admission Director) provides key tips for students as they consider who to ask for letters of recommendation. She also provides helpful insight into what college admission readers are (and are not) looking for when they come to this section of applications.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Letters of Recommendation – Kathleen Voss” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: Good recommendations showcase your character/compliment your story. Help your recommenders help you by giving them the time/direction/info they need to do their best job.  Only send the number of recs any particular college asks you to submit.

Listen For: The Starbucks Test (Honorable mention- Jerry McGuire hat tip).

Key Quote: “You are the book. And this is the person reviewing the book.”

Further Reading:   Big Future’s recs on recs. Insight from the Georgia Tech of Boston, aka MIT.

The Additional Information Section

Katie Mattli (Senior Assistant Director) explains what this section is (and what it’s not), as well as what readers are really looking for when they come to this section.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Understanding the Additional Information Section – Katie Mattli” on Spreaker.

Top Tips: It’s okay to leave this section blank. It’s not an additional essay or continuation of your resume and extra-curriculars. It’s an opportunity to include critical details of your story that you’ve not been able to include elsewhere. Google “the art of brevity.”

Listen For: Katie’s patented “two-part method” for approaching this section.

Key Quote: “I am a human being- and I’m trying to understand you as a human being.”

Further Reading: The Write Life.

That’s it for the real wisdom and helpful advice. In other news, here’s one more.

College Essays and Supplemental Writing

Rick Clark (Director of Undergraduate Admission) walks students through how to get started, possible topics to consider, and what “your voice” really means. He also touches on supplemental essays for colleges and walks you through very tangible tips for making your writing better.

Listen to “Basics of College Admission: Writing for Colleges – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

Top Tips:  Voice record your essay and listen back for ways to improve. Your application is a story: how can your essay fill in gaps and round out the most complete picture of you? Have an adult who does not know you very well read your essays to simulate the experience and takeaways of an admission counselor.

Listen For: Personal secrets and confessions.

Key Quote: “Essays should be personal and detailed. The worst essays are vanilla. They’re broad and have a bunch of multi-syllabic words.”  

Further Reading:  Blogger, coach, author, and overall good person, Ethan Sawyer, aka The College Essay Guy. Five Practical Tips for Writing for Colleges.

Thanks for reading—and thanks for listening. We will be wrapping up our mini-series, “The Basics of College Admission,” in the next month with episodes including financial aid, interviews, transfer admission, and more.

At this point, we’ve reached about 18,000 listeners on The College Admission Brief podcast. Admittedly, my mom and kids have a few accounts I created which is inflating those stats, but in general we’re pleased and truly appreciative. The annual podcast fee just hit my credit card, so we’ll definitely continue to be around and want to make this as helpful as possible as you navigate your admission experience.

If there is topic you think we missed and want us to cover, please reach out to @clark2college or @gtadmission.

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Beyond the Numbers: Digging Deeper in Your College Search

My parents are foils of one another. Introvert vs. extrovert, mountains vs. beach, butter on everything vs. butter only in coffee (I never said they were normal). Their preferences vary in weather, food, colors, sports—and that is just scratching the surface.

Perhaps the area in which they are most diametrically opposed is politics. My mom is an unabashed liberal and my dad is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.  As a kid, my sister and I were acutely aware (and frequently entertained) by these divergent political leanings and opinions. In fact, we found great humor in listening to them comment and quibble about every story covered on the evening news (a thing people used to do in the 80s).

An advantage to growing up in a home like mine is it taught me not to accept any one opinion as absolute truth, but rather to think for myself and seek additional information and perspectives. It also reinforces the need to question any number, percentage, or statistic, because while one of my parents would criticize a candidate’s 43% approval rating as “suppressed due to skewed polling,” the other and would complain it was “laughably generous.”

So, with both the election and admission season upon us, I hope you’ll embrace these critical lessons from the Clark household.

Never take any number at face value.   

Admission people aren’t dishonest, but I admit we’ll always put a rosy spin on numbers. We omit the ones that don’t make our school look good and find various ways to frame those that, if displayed differently, may not look as favorable. You should read our numbers the way we read your application: holistically. Dig deeper and seek context.

College Costs. You would think this would be a number you could take at face value… and if you think that, you’re wrong. In many cases, the price is not really the price. Remember, you can’t trust the numbers, so lean instead into the letters. Say what?

Take the time to understand how your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) is calculated. That will  lead you to the learn more about the FAFSA (Free Application For Federal Student Aid), and potentially CSS Profile. The truth is many people do not ultimately pay the price you see on the college brochure or university website. In fact, it’s common that your COA (cost of attendance, which includes tuition, housing, meal plan, other fees) will not be the same amount to attend the same college during the same timeframe as a classmate/teammate/roommate. What the…?! Told you not to trust the numbers.

Dig Deeper. I just gave you a bunch of acronyms and links above, so start there. Then look into Net Price Calculators (NPC). Before you apply to any college, you and your family should plug in your most accurate financial information to determine the approximate cost you will pay based on your specific circumstances. Doing this will facilitate a robust and honest conversation about affordability, loans, working during college, or financial conditions and expectations.

  • Don’t rule out a school based on their published price.
  • Do talk to your counselor, contact college financial aid representatives, speak with current college students, and even venture into some dark recesses of the interwebs to piece together a more complete picture of financial aid packages at the schools you’re considering.
  • Don’t expect to receive a financial aid package and exclaim, “That’s incredibly generous. What are we going to do with all of our unspent savings?” Could happen but you’d definitely be the exception rather than the rule.

Beyond the Numbers: Evaluating Rankings.  

Not a fan (But again you need to think for yourself here). I’ve written about the questionable methodology of these before. Just like you would expect a college to view your GPA broadly, accounting for your high school, grade trends, rigor of curriculum, and other circumstances, I am imploring you not to draw firm lines in the sand (or in an Excel document as it were).

Every year we hear stories from students who say they were discouraged from applying to schools ranked below number 25; or decided only to apply to schools within the Top 10 in a particular field; or were pressured to ultimately choose the highest ranked school from which they received on offer of admission. No!

Dig Deeper. Do your homework. Understand the methodology and ask yourself if you agree with how these rankings are determined. Consider questions like:

  • Does it matter to me that a President from one college looks favorably upon another (especially accounting for what we know about competition)? The fact that these rely at all upon surveys is preposterous. Surveys?!
  • Is a school’s ability to pay a faculty member $2,000 more annually ($244/month or $8/day) of consequence to my college search and decision?
  • Knowing that the rankings makers (think Seneca Crane) are under pressure to sell more ad space for vitamins and Audis, am I really going to choose to apply or attend a school based on this year’s number?

Others numbers I want to strongly encourage you to to dig into and not accept at face value: graduation rates, retention rates, test score bands, admit rates.

Perspective is critical. Ask lots of different people YOUR questions to gain confidence in your decisions.

Seek multiple perspectives.

Think about your own high school or hometown. If you only talk to the science department, the mayor, the basketball coach, or someone who moved away 10 years ago, you will get a very narrow take on what makes your school or town interesting, terrible, unique, or completely broken. Ask all of them and you can begin to see a fuller and more balanced picture.

The same is true for the colleges you are considering. Don’t take any one person’s opinion as gospel truth. I am the Director of Admission at Georgia Tech, but I am not the expert on all things Georgia Tech. And the same is true for any alum, tour guide, advisor, or current student. They have their perspective and lived experience, which is valuable, informative, and instructive on some level. But what is really relevant for you?

Your job is to listen closely to a variety of opinions and perspectives, so you can identify themes, trends, and the real culture or community. Be honest about what you really want or need to know, and then be proactive and diligent about asking YOUR specific questions.

Think for yourself.

If you remember nothing else from this blog, please keep in mind this fundamental truth about the college search and admission experience—it is YOURS.  YOU are ultimately the one who will be going, regardless of how many times you may hear a parent say, “We are looking at UC-Davis,” or “Our ACT was canceled last month.”

The next time you hear a friend or teacher say, “You should go to X College” or “You need to consider Y University (Go Y’ers!),” thank them for their suggestions. Continually value and solicit the advice, opinions, excitement, and concern of parents, teachers, friends, counselors, coaches, and others. However, don’t lose sight of your real goal and true success, which is not getting into a particular college (something completely outside of your control), but rather feeling confident about why you are applying to and ultimately choosing to attend a particular university.

Moving Forward

I hope you’ll apply these critical lessons in your college admission experience (and life in general): 1) never take any one number at face value, 2) seek multiple perspectives, and 3) think for yourself. As I’ve gotten older, and particularly in an election season, I’ve come to appreciate another lesson my parents always modeled—you can vehemently disagree with someone and still love and respect them.

The college admission experience is a pre-cursor to the actual college experience. I hope you’ll consider that last lesson as a key part of your preparation for your next four years and the years well beyond.

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