First off, it's important to say that this year is hard to predict for admissions cycles. Many colleges have delayed deadlines for applying. Many students have been unable to visit colleges they hope to enroll in. Standardized testing is no longer required for almost all colleges.
But in January, two things are clear. Most of the colleges that had been doing well before the coronavirus are still doing well -- many of them exceptionally so. The other thing that is clear is that colleges that serve primarily low-income students are not doing well.
A few campuses with deadlines that come earlier in the year, like the University of California system, have released application totals, and they are up. Elite private colleges with early-decision and early-action programs (the former require admitted applications to enroll) have announced how many students they have admitted -- and their numbers are way up. Many have admitted more students early than they have in the past.
But there is another story.
"Many institutions are down in applications and worried about meeting enrollment and revenue goals," said Angel B. Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "I worry that students and parents will read about the most selective institutions and defer applying to college this year -- even though the reality is, most institutions in this country are more than happy to accept their applications and admit them."
Take the 23-campus California State University system, which is highly diverse and has a reputation for educating low-income and minority students well. (Cal State, it should be noted, also attracts plenty of students who are well-off, and the Ivies attract low-income students, too.)
The Cal State system extended the deadline for applying from Dec. 1 to Dec. 15 to make it easier to apply this year. It isn't forcing applicants to submit test scores. Its campuses educate students close to their homes (and many continue to live at home), which has been a factor in admissions this year.
Cal State received 538,279 applications for first-time students and 256,543 for transfer students. Both numbers are down 5 percent from the previous year's total, according to Toni Molle, director of strategic communications and public affairs at the system.
"Campuses are continuing to evaluate their capacity to serve additional applicants and many have extended their application window," Molle said via email. "This extension also includes the ability for students to apply for waivers for the application fee and to recalculate financial aid packages for those who are facing additional financial hardships due to the pandemic."
Fifteen Cal State campuses are still accepting applications for first-time freshmen. Nineteen campuses are accepting applications for upper-division transfer students. Five Cal State campuses are accepting lower-division transfer admissions.
Compare those statistics to those of the University of California system, which features campuses with impossible-to-get-into admissions stats.
"Early application data shows roughly 250,000 freshman and transfer students submitted applications so far, an approximate 15 percent increase over the past year," said Claire Doan, executive director of strategic communications and media relations for the system.
Some campuses are extending deadlines.
Doan also noted that "initial highlights among California freshmen include a 12 percent increase in their applications over all, a 20 percent jump among African Americans and an 11 percent increase among Chicanx/Latinx students." The University of California -- some campuses by choice and others by court order -- is not considering SAT or ACT scores in this year's admissions process.
Now consider the early-decision/early-action figures for hypercompetitive private colleges.
Harvard University admitted 747 students early, out of an early pool of 10,086. The pool increased from 6,424 last year, a 57 percent increase. Last year, Harvard admitted more students, 895, but this year Harvard has to deal with 349 students who deferred admission because of the pandemic. Harvard also notes that 17 percent of students admitted early are the first in their families to go to college, up from 10 percent last year.
Brown University admitted 885 prospective students who applied early decision. The pool of 5,540 early-decision applicants from which those students were admitted was the university’s largest to date. Applications through the program increased 22 percent in a year.
Yale University admitted 837 early-action applicants, from a pool of 7,939 applications, an increase of 38 percent and a record for the university.
Another university with a record for early decision was Duke University. It admitted 840 students out of 5,036 who applied, a 16 percent increase in a year. The admit rate is dropping. This year it was 16.7 percent, compared to 20.7 percent last year.
Johns Hopkins University also set a record for early decision, offering spots to 520 students out of a pool that was 11 percent larger than last year's.
Setting records for early decision was also visible in the public sector -- at universities with highly competitive admissions.
Georgia Tech offers early admission only to Georgia students. More than 6,000 Georgians applied, and the university admitted 2,330 students.
The University of Virginia saw a 38 percent increase in early-decision applicants and made 968 binding offers.
So what do all these increases mean?
Pérez of NACAC said that "more of the Ivies and most selective are up in part due to the new test-optional policies," even if only some applicants are taking advantage of the policies. "It gives more hope to students who were strong in high school grades and co-curriculars, but perhaps did not do well on the exams -- or didn't take one at all," he said.
Many other colleges are not releasing the totals yet (which aren't setting records), he said.
"You will see many institutions down because so many students and families are worried about finances," he said. "School counselors are telling me that their families are concerned about finances more than ever -- and some are even putting off applying to college until they have a better sense of what their families' financial picture will look like. We have to remember that we have millions of people unemployed or currently underemployed, and the anxiety over paying for college is higher than ever."
Katie Burns, a master admissions counselor at IvyWise, a company that consults with students on admissions, and former senior assistant director of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also said going test optional has been a big booster for highly selective colleges. "It's always been about more than test scores, but now they can see that."
Test optional "has led more students to think they are admissible," Burns said.
But, she added, "colleges went out and have been a little bit more aggressive in admitting students early" to compensate for fears that they would lose students due to the pandemic.
She predicted that all the early-decision acceptances would make it harder for people to get in via regular decision, as fewer seats remain.
As for low-income students worrying about money, she said, "I am hearing that across the board."
Added Burns, "There are so many concerns at home. I see students being more overwhelmed by how to stay on top of their academics, and there are other priorities for them."
"I see a lot of students falling through the cracks," she said.