Applications Are Decreasing

Common Application reports declines of 8 percent. Applications for first-generation students and those eligible for fee waivers are down 16 percent.

November 16, 2020
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The Common Application received 8 percent fewer applications through Nov. 2 compared to last year, and 60 percent of its 921 members were reporting application declines.

Applications from first-generation students and those eligible for application fee waivers were down 16 percent.

Those figures are from an update that Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common App, recently provided to members.

It is of course true that -- aside from early-decision and early-action deadlines -- most application deadlines haven't yet occurred. And the Common App notes that many colleges moved deadlines back by one or two weeks, typically to Nov. 15 or 16.

Still, last year, 57 percent of applicants had submitted at least one application by Nov. 2, and 37 percent of all applications had been submitted by that date.

The Common App started primarily as a tool for liberal arts colleges, but it has expanded significantly to public higher education and larger institutions.

In an interview, Rickard said that she was particularly concerned about the figures for first-generation and low-income students. She hopes educators will redouble efforts to "support them in the process."

Numerous studies have shown that first-generation, Black and Latinx students are not enrolling this year at the same levels as white and Asian students.

Rickard said the Common App was working to analyze the data in the hope of offering colleges advice and ideas.

One of the things the Common App is examining is the role of standardized testing requirements. A majority of colleges are not requiring applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores this year, as so many students have reported that it is impossible for them to register for and take the tests even once, let alone more than once.

Colleges that are not requiring test scores "experienced stronger first-year application volume through November 2," Rickard's letter said. (Florida's public universities, which require the SAT or ACT, are experiencing a decline of up to 50 percent in applications.)

On application fees, 22 institutions dropped their application fees for first-year international students in 2020, and application volume at those institutions rose nearly 29 percent. Institutions that introduced fees for this population experienced a nearly 12 percent decline in application volume for international students through Nov. 2.

Other findings:

  • Colleges and universities in the Northeast and Midwest regions experienced the largest declines in application volume, each down 14 percent.
  • Colleges in the West saw a 10 percent increase in applications relative to 2019.
  • First-year application declines were mostly consistent among members across enrollment size, with the exception of those with the smallest enrollments (fewer than 1,000), which were down substantially more, at a loss of 14 percent.
  • Public four-year institutions saw an 11 percent drop relative to 2019, while private four-year institutions saw a smaller (5 percent) fall in volume over the same period.

One group experiencing positive results is historically Black colleges and universities, which are seeing a 2.4 percent increase. Many HBCUs have been getting high student compliance with social distancing and mask wearing and are reporting lower coronavirus infection rates.

The Coalition for College is a competitor to the Common App and has more than 100 members, most of them also members of the Common App.

A spokeswoman for the Coalition said via email, "While some member institutions are seeing an increase in applications, numbers are trending downward so far over all. Nationally, [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] completions are running about 16 percent behind last year’s completions at this time, and lagging further behind for students from Title I-eligible high schools and high schools with higher percentages of students of color. We know that the pandemic is impacting students’ current and future plans in significant ways, and we’re continuing to work as a Coalition on outreach and engagement with students who are especially at risk, and creating and refining tools, including our application, that aim to remove barriers."

Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said the numbers from the Common App indicate that "institutions that are seeing success in application numbers thus far are those that worked hard to put students at the center of the process and remove barriers." For instance, he said the data show "that institutions that did not remove the testing requirement are seeing fewer applications, and particularly from marginalized populations. Institutions still have time to consider ways to simplify the process for applicants."

He said it was important to remember that "simplification does not mean a lack of attention to academic rigor -- these two are not mutually exclusive." Pérez said, "This is a time for institutions to ask themselves, 'What do we really need to make informed decisions about student's ability to succeed?'"

Pérez also said it was important to look at FAFSA completion rates, which have been falling. "This will create serious challenges this winter when schools are running their econometric models to figure out how much money they need to disburse in financial aid to meet enrollment targets," he said. "A strategic focus on creating FAFSA completion campaigns will be critical to success this year."

In the end, Pérez said, it is important to convince everyone at a college to help in the recruitment process. "When I sat in the chief enrollment chair, I always reminded my institution that it takes a village to enroll a class," he said. "It's never been more important to call upon the entire community to help recruit the class. Students, staff, faculty, trustees, alumni and parents can make a significant difference this year. Every constituency should be a cheerleader for the institution, not just the admissions office."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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