Admissions Reality Check

NACAC releases annual survey results, which show that most colleges let in most applicants -- and that increases in applications may not translate into more students. Interest in transfer applications is up.

May 7, 2015

This is the time of year full of hysterical news articles about what a small share of applicants gained admission to the likes of Stanford University or the University of California at Berkeley.

Those reports may be true with regard to those institutions, but the 2014 State of College Admission report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling offers data from a survey of four-year college admissions offices that reflect the vast majority of American colleges and students. And the results are quite different from the media hype.

It is true, for example, that more students are applying to more colleges than they have in the past. Thirty-two percent of fall 2013 freshmen had submitted seven or more applications for admission, an increase of 10 percentage points since 2008.

But as Sweet Briar College demonstrated this year, more applications generally may not mean more students. In the five years before the college's board announced plans to shut down, applications increased from 572 per year to 936. But the college couldn't persuade enough of those who were accepted to enroll, and it saw its yield (the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll) drop from 33 to 21 percent.

The NACAC survey found that for the classes colleges enrolled in fall 2013, the average institutional yield rate continued a long-term drop, to 36 percent. In 2002, the national average was 49 percent.

Many colleges are thus admitting more applicants but enrolling fewer of them. And the result is that most four-year colleges are not competitive in admissions. As has been the pattern in recent years, the average admission rate (the percentage of applicants who are admitted) is in the mid-60s. The new data show the figure at 64.7 percent, up one point from the previous year, but down from the years before that. Despite these ups and down (which are modest), colleges with single-digit percentage admissions rates (some Ivies, etc.) are quite atypical.

A new issue NACAC is tracking is interest in transfer applications. As the population of high school graduates has fallen in many states, and concern about student loans has increased, both students and colleges are embracing the idea (long favored by many) of students starting at community colleges. Seventy percent of four-year colleges reported that they held recruitment events at community colleges.

But while some colleges reported increased numbers of transfer applicants, others didn't -- with more selective colleges being in the latter group. And while many private colleges are starting to focus on the transfer student, public institutions are way ahead.

At public institutions, the freshman-to-transfer ratio for admitted students averaged 5 to 1, while the figure was 18 to 1 for private colleges. And at private colleges that accept fewer than 50 percent of applicants, the ratio was 25 to 1.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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