The Rich Get Richer…

Selective institutions are thriving in admissions this year, Common App shows. Not only are they getting more applicants over all, but also more from minority, first-gen and low-income groups.

March 15, 2021
 
Hyejin Kang/Getty Images

The more selective colleges and universities have had a very good year in admissions, according to new data from the Common Application. Not only do they have more applicants, but they are enjoying substantial increases for minority, first-generation and low-income applicants as well.

The figures come from the Common App's new data, which are through March 1. It may seem late in the year to be releasing application totals, because many colleges no longer accept applications after Jan. 15 or Feb. 1 or Feb. 15. But 617 out of the 917 four-year members of the Common App are still accepting applications this year and many will go on doing so right up until students enroll. (All of the data only compare colleges that were Common App members last year and this year.)

In overall numbers, the year-over-year decline in first-generation applicants reached -1 percent. "While these trends show progress relative to prior summaries, these applicant subgroups are still following a different year-over-year trajectory than their non-first-generation (+4 percent) and non-fee waiver recipient (+3 percent) peers," wrote Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common App, in a letter to members.

The letter also noted that "larger, more selective member institutions experienced greater year-over-year increases in application volume than smaller, less selective members. This was especially true for applications submitted by applicants historically underrepresented in higher education. Applications from first-generation applicants, applicants receiving a fee waiver, and applicants from traditionally underrepresented racial/ethnic minority (URM) subgroups (applicants identifying as Black or African American, Latinx, American Indian or Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander), shifted toward more selective member institutions. For example, applications from each subgroup to large, more selective, private institutions rose substantially (+20 percent for first-generation applicants, +22 percent for fee-waiver recipients, and +24 percent for URM applicants), while applications from these applicants to similar sized, but less selective, private institutions followed different trends (-4 percent, 0 percent, and 2 percent)."

In general, more selective institutions (those with admit rates below 50 percent) were the winners in this admissions season. So were larger institutions (defined as over 10,000 in enrollment). This was especially the case for private institutions.

Application Totals Through March 1

Institution Type One-Year Change in Applications
Private, large, less selective 2.23%
Private, large, more selective 20.66%
Private, small, less selective 0.41%
Private, small, more selective 14.11%
Public, large, less selective 12.97%
Public, large, more selective 15.53%
Public, small, less selective -2.13%
Public, small, more selective -0.64%

Rickard said in an interview that the most significant thing about these new numbers was that more disadvantaged students are applying to top colleges.

"Students are seeing a real opportunity," she said. And this is likely related to these colleges going test optional or test blind.

"There's a real opportunity for students, but also for colleges," Rickard said.

Through Feb. 15, only 44 percent of people using the Common Application had submitted SAT or ACT scores. Last year's total was 77 percent.

Rickard said she hoped colleges would realize what they are gaining with these students. Testing "can be a real barrier" for many disadvantaged students, and they are finally applying to these colleges (which have in the past recruited them heavily, but not always with success).

With a majority of Common App colleges still accepting applications, she said colleges are going to have a very difficult time predicting how many students to expect in the fall. "Yield is going to be anybody's guess," she said.

At the most competitive colleges, she said, they will probably just use the waiting list to make up for any yield decrease. But the numbers suggest to her that most colleges will have to admit more students this year.

Robert J. Massa, principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now, said via email that "once again, these application numbers demonstrate the difference between the haves and the have nots. From the student perspective, the number of fee waiver applicants increased" marginally, "which may seem encouraging," he said. But Massa added, "But when viewed in the context of non-fee waiver applicants increasing by 3 percent, it does indicate that lower income students are not enjoying the same growth rate as higher income students. Institutionally, the small private and public colleges that are less well-known are either flat (privates down 0.41 percent) or down a small amount (small publics down 2.13 percent). On the other hand, the well-known, highly selective, large privates are up 20.66 percent and the large, selective publics up almost 13 percent."

Massa also noted the gains by region.

Application Changes by Region

Region One-Year Change in Applications
Mid-Atlantic 7.88%
Southern 15.47%
Midwest 10.48%
New England 9.48%
West 12.37%
Southwest 22.73%

"The number of students applying has increased by about 2 percent over last year, which makes sense as the demographics are increasing slightly before the projected nosedive in 2026. But they have submitted 11 percent more applications than last year -- primarily to colleges in the Southwest (up 22.73 percent and in the South (up 15.47 percent). The mid-Atlantic and New England schools saw single digit increases."

"First gen, lower income and under-represented minority students are fueling increases in applications to the more selective institutions, public and private, in part because many of these schools are now test optional," Massa added. "Students from lower income families tend to have lower test scores than do those from families of privilege. They believe their chances of admission to these so-called 'top schools' are better without their scores. But there is a catch. Understanding that students are applying to a larger number of colleges this year versus last year, the highly selective schools will likely admit a slightly larger number of students to compensate for a potentially lower yield. But their acceptance percentage, because of a larger applicant pool, will be either the same or perhaps lower than last year and they will, of course, pad their waitlists to assure that they have the right number of new students in the fall. Therefore, it really will not be easier to get in."

All in all, Massa said the "the smaller, less well known schools will continue to struggle as will lower income students who will be competing for a finite number of spaces against many more applicants at the highly selective schools."

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