Good News on Admissions—Up to a Point

What impact will the current Omicron breakouts have on applications? Will low-income applicants apply? Will applicants come from China?

January 18, 2022
Dejan Marjanovic/Getty Images

The Common Application has released its data from December in a report, and the overall numbers of students using the application to apply to colleges are encouraging for higher education.

Through Dec. 16, 2021, 931,540 distinct applicants had applied to 853 Common App returning member institutions, an increase of 13 percent over 2019–20, the last year before the pandemic. Application volume through Dec. 15 rose 18.6 percent from 2019–20 (3,422,635) to 2021–22 (4,058,187), following a more modest increase in 2020–21 (3,653,391).

Even more encouraging: the relatively large increases in underrepresented minority (Black, Latinx, Native American and Pacific Islander) and first-generation applicants, which appeared in a November report to persist through this point in the application season. Underrepresented minority applicants increased by 17 percent over 2019–20, while first-gen applicants increased by 21 percent. Typically, minority and low-income applicants apply later than more affluent applicants.

The Common App currently has more than 900 colleges as members. But for purposes of this new study, only those colleges that were members in the last two years were considered. The Common App has far more colleges than any other application service (including community colleges), but community colleges were not counted in this study, as they operate on a different admissions calendar.

The news is not all good. Applicants from China are down, and it is too early to tell what impact the current Omicron breakouts will have.

The Good News

Through Dec. 16, the numbers of accounts created by high school seniors (+12.1 percent), applicants (+13 percent), total applications (+18.6 percent) and applications per applicant (+5.1 percent) each increased from 2019–20.

In terms of students who might not have applied last year, the numbers are strong. The number of underrepresented minority students increased by 17 percent (compared to 12 percent for other students) and the number of first-generation students increased by 21 percent, compared to 10 percent for those who are not first gen.

The total numbers show that most applicants, however, are not minority or first gen.

Group 2019–20 (through Dec. 15) 2021–22 (though Dec. 15)
Underrepresented minority 195,727 229,007
Other applicants 628,924 702,533
First generation 227,399 275,406
Other applicants 597,260 656,131

One other point in the data: those minority and first-generation students who are applying to college through the Common App may be wealthier than other minority and first-gen students. A reported 199,210 applicants used the fee waiver this year (for low-income students), a 10 percent increase from two years ago.

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In addition, 58 percent of the applicants who applied by Dec. 15 lived in ZIP codes in the top income quintile. Only 6 percent of applicants come from the bottom quintile.

“We may see this trend softening later in the application season given that early admission applicants tend to be less diverse than regular admission applicants,” said a report the Common App released with the data. “These trends reiterate the imperative that more work is necessary to effectively engage and support students from across the country’s diverse communities in the college admissions process.”

The new data do not suggest a return to the norm with standardized testing being required by colleges. Most colleges are continuing to be test optional or test blind this year.

Only about half of students (51 percent) submitted test scores with their applications. That is up from 47 percent at this point last year, but down from 78 percent the year before.

Only 40 percent of underrepresented minority students, and only 37 percent of first-generation students, submitted scores.

This year, many highly selective colleges had records for applications and freshmen from all groups. But many less selective colleges struggled.

“We observe that fewer applications at this point in the season went to less selective members (admit rates at or above 75 percent),” said the Common App report. “Even so, growth in application volume since 2019–20 was roughly the same across selectivity groups, with the highly selective members (admit rates below 50 percent) growing just slightly more over time (21 percent). These trends are far more equalized than what we observed in the mid-November update, where highly selective members saw over twice the increase in applications since 2019–20 than more selective and less selective institutions.”

The report also contains some good news for those concerned about international applicants.

“The number of international applicants has increased at nearly triple the rate of domestic applicants since 2019–20 (33 percent versus 12 percent). China, India, Canada, Nigeria, and South Korea were the leading home countries for international applicants.”

At the same time, the number of applicants from China is down this year. Through Jan. 11, only 17,495 applicants had sought admission. That compares to 17,827 last year and 21,231 before the pandemic.

Preston Magouirk, a data scientist at the Common App, said colleges should be pleased by “the relative increase in applications from historically underrepresented backgrounds.”

He said that last year many low-income students were particularly hurt by not having direct access to college counselors. At the same time, he said, the data from this month, when some students have been forced back into remote learning, will reveal whether that problem has returned. Wealthier students, he said, have more resources to make up for a lost week or month.

Magouirk also said he would be watching the numbers from China.

He’s hoping that all the numbers “will be a bit more predictable,” but he said it all depends on the pandemic.


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