The Future of College Admission?

Listen to “Episode 22: The Future of College Admission? – Rick Clark” on Spreaker.

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.Perspective

(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 Roundabouteven 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 Admission Listthrough 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 stick to 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.

Author: Rick Clark

@gtadmission