BY BRIAN C. MITCHELL
For thousands of high school students, October marks the start of the college application season. Application deadlines approach, standardized tests and essays are finalized, and this year, an earlier deadline for the FAFSA financial aid application. In a series of reports last month, seasoned higher education journalist Scott Jaschik presented some interesting findings about the state of admissions.
In a piece entitled “More Applications, Plenty of Spaces,” he addressed the number of applications and the availability of admissions openings on college campus, drawing from a survey by the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC). Later in the month, Mr. Jaschik discussed and interpreted the findings from the 2016 Inside Higher Education Survey of College and University Admissions Officers on a wider variety of issues, including the pressure to build the incoming admissions class.
Taken together, the results paint the picture of a higher education admissions community under considerable stress although the factors vary by size, type, and whether public or private.
The good news in this year’s NACAC study is that the number of applications is up by about six percent for first-time freshman, four percent for transfers, and 23 percent for students from outside the United States.
Troubling Signs for College Enrollment Offices
As you look “under the hood,” however, some troubling signs suggest that the levels of stress and uncertainty in enrollment offices continue.
The NACAC study reports that only 19.7% of the colleges and universities surveyed admitted fewer than 50 percent of their applicants, while 36 percent admitted 50 to 70 percent of their applicants. The average admissions rate for colleges for enrollment in 2014 was 65.8 percent, up from 64.7 percent the year before.
The NACAC study also looked at yield — the percentage of admitted students who enroll. The number rose slightly to 36.2 percent but was down substantially from 2002 when it was just under 50 percent. Just under 40 percent of the colleges used a waiting list. An average of 32 percent of students who stayed on the list were offered an admissions spot although the percentage was far lower at the most selective colleges.
Among the factors that influenced admissions decisions, less than 15 percent reported that race and ethnicity had a moderate or considerable influence. For first generation applicants, the colleges noted that this factor played a moderate or considerable role in about 16 percent of the applicants.
What Do Admissions Officers Think About All of This?
The Inside Higher Education survey was more topical by design, looking at admission officers reactions to issues like the new SAT, the launch of a new college application to compete with the Common Application, a calendar shift in application deadlines for financial aid, the free public education proposals of political candidates, and the US Supreme Court decision upholding race and ethnicity in college admission decisions.
The most comparable findings to the NACAC study dealt with whether colleges and universities met their historic May 1 admission deadlines. The survey found that the proportion of private colleges that met their May 1 admission goals was down one percentage point to 41 percent. But the percentage of public colleges meeting their May 1 admission goals was down dramatically to 29 percent.
Mr. Jaschik reported that the decline was almost all from community colleges whose admissions officials do not focus as much on a May 1 deadline. Significantly, while 20 percent of community colleges related that they met their May 1 admissions target a year ago, only nine percent did in this year’s survey. In fact, 88 percent of the community colleges report that they are down compared to two years ago.
If we separate these numbers from other data that could be layered on, like financial aid discounting, transfer practices, and retention, the concerns continue to rise. But even looking at these basic admission data, the picture over the short term at least is clear.
Look Beyond Elite Schools for True Picture
The obvious conclusion is that all of higher education is not Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, or Yale where single percentage admission numbers show no particular relevance to the rest of America’s colleges and universities. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Selectivity and quality remain distinctive traits only sometimes shared in common. The numbers suggest that Americans can still get a great education, minus the snob appeal of the anointed, resource-rich few at the top of the pyramid.
The real danger is that there is a growing chasm between what higher education offers and the willingness of Americans to take advantage of it. On this level, it seems to be a mix of economics, politics, psychology, and optics.
The root of the problem is most likely that higher education –whether public or private – has created an unsustainable operating model that no longer makes sense.
Challenge for Institutional Leadership, Not Just Admissions
And therein lies the problem. At its most fundamental, enrollment is code for revenue. It’s a critical distinction when America’s colleges and universities are so heavily dependent on tuition for their survival. The survey numbers suggest that American higher education has a growing revenue problem masked by a softening admission market of students who fill seats in college classrooms.
Follow the money. The solution rests not in admission offices but with trustees and administrative and faculty leadership who must read and interpret what they see. It’s a clear call to shake off the inertia on most college campuses while there is still time to act.