Context on Admissions Jumps

With some regularity, the mainstream press seems to love to scare would-be college students and parents with stories about how one may be more likely to be hit by lightning than win admission to an Ivy university or a prominent flagship. True?

November 19, 2010

With some regularity, the mainstream press seems to love to scare would-be college students and parents with stories about how one may be more likely to be hit by lightning than win admission to an Ivy university or a prominent flagship. True?

A report being issued today by the National Association for College Admission Counseling says that it is true that colleges are receiving many more applications than in the past -- and that part of the phenomenon is linked to top students applying to more colleges than they used to, and top colleges receiving more applications than they used to. Still, the NACAC report is very much a "yes but" on the question of whether the increases in applications are really about the frenzy to get into the most competitive colleges.

Many of the largest increases in applications are at less selective institutions seeing increased numbers of high school graduates in some areas, and increased numbers of Latino and black applicants in other cases. At many of these institutions, the increase in the number of applications doesn't necessarily mean that people are having a more difficult time getting into a college (and there is no evidence in the report that the much-discussed Ivy rejects, however numerous, are unable to find anywhere to enroll).

In fact, the study also notes that as applications have been increasing in number, so have the number of slots at many institutions -- at a range of competitiveness levels. While the report notes the many ways in which the trends don't fit the simple narrative about frenzied students at top colleges, the analysis also stresses the concerns about all those applications -- that resources may be wasted by students and institutions, and that attention may be shifting away from issues of providing access to all students.

"Missing from much of this impassioned discourse on college admission is direct evidence -- national in scope -- to contextualize the experiences of students, parents and admissions officers," the report says.

Data show increases, across the board by region, sector and selectivity, in number of applications received -- with greater gains among private institutions, at institutions with lower SAT averages, and at colleges in the South. Notably, many of these gains are at institutions where the vast majority of students are admitted.

Increases in Median Number of Applications at Four-Year Institutions, 2001-2008

Institution Type Annual Average a Year 2001-2008 Total Change
By Sector    
--Public 6% 47%
--Private nonprofit 8% 70%
--Private for-profit 8% 69%
--West 6% 49%
--Midwest 7% 56%
--South 8% 73%
--Northeast 7% 64%
--Puerto Rico 10% 88%
SAT Total for 75th Percentile    
--Less than 1078 8% 64%
--1078-1159 7% 58%
--1160-1259 7% 64%
--1260 and higher 6% 53%
Historically black colleges 7% 58%
Hispanic-serving institutions 12% 111%

While those numbers are dramatic in some cases, the NACAC report also notes that most colleges also admitted more students. So while the South saw a 73 percent increase in applications, it also saw a 52 percent increase in the number of acceptances. Many colleges admitted more students and saw their yield rates (the percentage of accepted students who enroll) decline -- so the story of application increases alone overstates the potential problem, the report says.

Further, the increases also reflect positive trends.

While only some Latino students enroll at Hispanic-serving institutions, the large gains there reflect a key change in demographics in the United States during the same period, the report notes. From 2001 through 2007, the number of Hispanic high school graduates annually increased by 57 percent, compared to 30 percent for black students, 26 percent for Asian students and 7 percent for non-Hispanic white students.

Looking at the trends as a whole, the report suggests that while it is important for educators to think about admissions hysteria at the most competitive high schools, it is also important (and perhaps more important) to think about issues related to those who want higher education and aren't applying to the most elite colleges. And that leads the report to say that those concerned about application growth need to focus on a sector without (on average) competitive admissions. "The complexity of problems in college costs notwithstanding, we submit that public two-year colleges are, quite simply, grossly underfunded," the report says. "No amount of increasing efficiencies will address their real needs."

As for four-year competitive institutions, the report suggests that much more study is needed, but that the figures suggest that some colleges "are spending more resources than necessary on recruiting students."


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