Economic Realities and Admissions

Surveys by NACAC finds high schools reporting more students being influenced by cost, and colleges seeing signs of those choices.
June 9, 2009

While this year's admissions cycle may not be truly over until new students show up in the fall, many high schools and colleges can now see clear trends. Not surprisingly, the economy is having a real impact on student choices and behavior, according to a study released today by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

The study is based on surveys conducted by NACAC of its member high schools and colleges -- with officials at the former reporting on the students they advised through the application process, and the latter providing impressions of their applications process. (On the high school side, responses came disproportionately from private high schools, so while NACAC says the figures are valid when examined by sector, they cautioned against assuming that the average of public and private answers was some sort of national average. Another caution is that the questions refer to increases or decreases, not always to the magnitude of those shifts, so there could be significant variation among those answering the questions the same ways.)

Among the highlights of the surveys (tables are below):

  • A significant minority of public (37.6 percent) and private (40.1 percent) high schools reported more applications per student, but a plurality for both sectors reported that the application-per-student ratio (which many feared might rise significantly this year) was about the same as last year.
  • Interest in community colleges was up, especially at public high schools, 62.9 percent of which reported an increase in the number of students selecting community colleges; only 2.9 percent reported a decrease. Among private high schools, most counseling officials reported no change in interest in community colleges, but 21.3 percent saw more students going to two-year institutions.
  • Solid majorities at both public and private high schools reported a shift in enrollment patterns, with an increase in those enrolling in public colleges.
  • Solid majorities at both public and private high schools reported that more students this year than in the past were not enrolling at their "dream schools" for economic reasons.
  • Majorities of both public and private colleges reported increases in inquiries and applications and very small majorities of both sectors reported increases in early decision applications (in which students pledge to admit if enrolled).
  • Public colleges were more likely to see their yields (the percentage of accepted applicants who enroll) go up, while the opposite was true for private colleges.
  • Significant minorities of public and private colleges saw increases in the percentages of students accepted through early decision who declined to enroll, citing inadequate financial aid.
  • Many more colleges -- public and private -- saw increases in fall to spring retention rates than saw decreases.

Add up the above and the picture is one that presents challenges for both high schools and colleges. But the NACAC survey found that significant numbers of the offices that deal with the college admissions process are doing so in the context of budget cuts and staff reductions. Thirty-seven percent of public high schools saw budget cuts in the last academic year, and 14 percent of public high schools reported staff cuts. For private high schools, the comparable figures were 25 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

In higher education as well, the cuts were greater in admissions offices at public institutions (46 percent reporting cuts) than private (30 percent). The average public college admissions office lost 2.5 staff persons, compared to 1.5 staff persons in private colleges.

Here are details from the tables released by NACAC.

High Schools Reporting Changes in Student Admissions Behavior, 2008-9 Academic Year

Trend Public Private
Applications per student    
--Increased 37.6% 40.1%
--Stayed the same 45.9% 46.6%
--Decreased 16.5% 13.3%
Selecting community colleges over four-year institutions    
--Increased 62.9% 21.3%
--Stayed the same 34.2% 73.9%
--Decreased 2.9% 4.7%
Selecting public over private institutions    
--Increased 65.4% 56.3%
--Stayed the same 28.2% 39.5%
--Decreased 6.4% 4.2%
Delayed college enrollment    
--Increased 25.4% 8.1%
--Stayed the same 72.9% 90.1%
--Decreased 1.7% 1.7%
Forgoing "dream school"    
--Increased 75.7% 67.8%
--Stayed the same 21.3% 31.2%
--Decreased 3.0% 1.0%

Colleges Reporting Changes in Applicant Behavior, 2008-9 Academic Year

Trend or Factor Public Private
Total applications received    
--Increased 71.2% 58.3%
--Stayed the same 11.9% 11.0%
--Decreased 16.9% 30.7%
Acceptance rate    
--Increased 39.7% 48.6%
--Stayed the same 33.6% 27.7%
--Decreased 26.7% 23.8%
Early decision applications    
--Increased 50.0% 50.6%
--Stayed the same 35.7% 27.2%
--Decreased 14.3% 22.2%
Declining early decision offers for financial reasons    
--Increased 47.6% 39.8%
--Stayed the same 42.9% 53.4%
--Decreased 9.5% 6.8%
Use of waiting list    
--Increased 43.6% 38.4%
--Stayed the same 41.8% 39.1%
--Decreased 14.5% 22.5%
May 1 yield rate    
--Increased 46.2% 31.4%
--Stayed the same 21.5% 19.1%
--Decreased 32.3% 49.5%
Fall to spring retention rate    
--Increased 56.6% 41.8%
--Stayed the same 39.6% 44.7%
--Decreased 3.8% 13.6%


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