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Only 34 percent of colleges met new student enrollment targets this year by May 1, the traditional date by which most institutions hope to have a class set.

That is a key finding of the 2017 Survey of College and University Admissions Directors, released today by Inside Higher Ed, in collaboration with Gallup.

The 34 percent figure is down from 37 percent a year ago and 42 percent two years ago.

For colleges, public and private, failing to hit that target can be anything from an annoyance to an existential crisis. All but a few elite private colleges are dependent on tuition, and most public colleges are as well (both through tuition and state funds that tend to be distributed based on enrollment.)

The only sector where a majority of colleges and universities reported meeting their goals was public doctoral institutions, of which 59 percent said that they had met their target by May 1. Public research universities include institutions, such as the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, that are among the most competitive in admissions in the country. They have a strong base within their state and popularity out of state, including with international students who are increasingly important to the enrollment strategies of many American colleges.

About the Survey
Inside Higher Ed's 2017 Survey of College and University Admissions Directors was conducted in conjunction with researchers from Gallup. Inside Higher Ed regularly surveys key higher ed professionals on a range of topics.

On Thursday, Sept. 28, at 2 p.m. Eastern, Inside Higher Ed will present a free webcast to discuss the results of the survey. Sign up here.

You may download a full survey report here.

The Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions directors was made possible in part by support from Jenzabar, Intersect by Hobsons, Liaison, Blackboard Student Lifecyle Services and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

But if public research universities are doing well, other parts of public higher education are not. Only 22 percent of public bachelor's/master's institutions met their targets by May 1, and the figure was 27 percent for community colleges. (It should be noted that many community colleges do considerable recruiting during the summer.)

For private colleges and universities, 36 percent met admissions goals by May 1, but this was a year in which some well-regarded private colleges struggled to hit targets for applications, even as a small number of private institutions continued to have far more applicants than they could ever need.

Kenyon College received 5,600 applications for the class enrolling in the fall. That's down from 6,400 the previous year and a record 7,077 the year before. The admit rate has gone up from 24 percent two years ago to 33 percent this year. Grinnell College had 5,850 applicants, down 21 percent in a year, from 7,370. This year Grinnell admitted almost 200 more applicants than last year, so the admit rate increased in a year from 20 percent to 29 percent.

Times have also been difficult for private colleges trying to revive themselves. Sweet Briar College has 95 new students for the fall and is now cutting tuition. Antioch College has only 22 new students for the fall.

Given the small share of colleges meeting their targets, it's not surprising that 55 percent of college and university admissions directors (roughly the same for public and private) reported that they had been very concerned about meeting their May 1 targets. Another 30 percent reported having been moderately concerned, and only 3 percent said that they weren't concerned at all. Last year, 54 percent said that they were very concerned, and the year before the total was 31 percent. The percentage not worried at all was 5 percent last year, and 7 percent the year before.

The results are drawn from responses from 453 admissions directors (or officials with equivalent titles). Those participating were given complete anonymity, but their answers were coded by institution to provide for analysis by sector.

Other top findings (detailed below):

  • Many colleges, especially private institutions, appear to be focusing recruiting strategies on students with the capacity to pay.
  • In the realm of international student recruiting, many say that American higher education has become too dependent on students from a few countries, but most admissions directors don't think that's true of their institutions.
  • While most colleges don't check applicants' social media, some do -- and some applicants are being rejected or having acceptances revoked over their posts.
  • Officials at many colleges, more public than private, say they are stepping up recruitment of rural and low-income white students in the wake of the election, and a small minority of colleges are stepping up recruitment of conservative students.
  • Admissions directors strongly believe that higher education has an image problem with ramifications for enrollment patterns -- and that image problem may be the worst for liberal arts colleges.
  • Admissions directors -- both from public and private institutions -- believe they are losing potential applicants because of concerns about debt. But private and public college admissions leaders differ on how much debt is reasonable.
  • The idea of free tuition in public higher education is seen by most private college admissions directors as a threat to their institutions. While admissions directors in public higher education are more open to the idea, they have areas of skepticism as well.

Who Are the Target Students?

Inside Higher Ed's survey asked the admissions leaders which groups would be their targets for increased recruitment efforts in the next year, providing a sense of where various colleges will be focused. Many of those top priorities appear to reflect the pressure on colleges to find students who will be able to pay full freight.

Among private colleges, for example, a higher percentage strongly agreed that the college will increase recruiting with non-need-based scholarships (41 percent) and out-of-state students (44 percent) than said minority students will be a target (35 percent).

The relative strength of public doctoral institutions in enrollment may account for the fact that the sector is the only one where a majority of admissions directors (63 percent) strongly agreed that recruiting minority students would be an area of increased focus in the next year.

The following table shows various categories, and the public-private split, in agreeing or strongly agreeing that these groups would be subject of increased recruiting in the next year.

Groups Admissions Directors Say Will Be Target of Increased Recruiting in Next Academic Year

Transfer students63%85%
Minority students74%66%
Students recruited with merit scholarships46%70%
First-generation college students69%49%
Out-of-state students39%66%
Veterans or active-duty military55%45%
Online students53%42%
Full-pay students42%52%
International students33%59%

International Students: Too Reliant on a Few Countries? Are U.S. Colleges Damaged by Trump?

College students with a banner saying "Welcome International Students."For many colleges, international students have been a key part of enrollment strategy, especially since the 2008 economic downturn. It has become common for colleges that once had few international undergraduates to have goals of 5 or even 10 percent of students to come from outside the United States, and many colleges have achieved such goals. When they have done so by attracting students from China and India who can pay all costs of enrollment, the strategy has had a major impact on college finances.

This fall, reporting by Inside Higher Ed found that some colleges are reporting flat enrollment of new international students, while others are reporting substantial drops -- in several cases of between 20 and 50 percent.

In this year's survey of admissions directors, questions looked both at why colleges might be frustrated with international enrollments this year, and what they are expecting for the future.

For starters, admissions leaders report that they are feeling the Trump impact. Eighty-six percent agreed or strongly agreed that "the statements and policies of President Trump make it more difficult to recruit international students." Only 9 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Looking ahead, public colleges seem more pessimistic on international enrollments than are private colleges. But private colleges are more likely to either start offering or spend additionally on non-need-based aid for international students.

Forty-six percent of admissions leaders at public institutions said they expected a decline in the number of international students in the years ahead. At private colleges, the figure was only 20 percent.

But asked about providing non-need-based aid to international students or adding such aid, only 21 percent of public admissions leaders said they expected to do so. At private colleges, the figure was 53 percent. Despite all the talk about zero discounting for international students, some colleges have already started providing non-need-based aid to international students. But public institutions tend to be very careful with such aid, to avoid a political backlash if legislators ever thought it was less expensive for international students than in-state students to enroll.

Flat of the People's Republic of ChinaAdmissions leaders don't place all the blame for their challenges in international recruiting on Trump.

Forty-five percent of admissions leaders (relatively similar numbers at public and private colleges) say that American colleges have become "too dependent on international full-pay students." Asked if American colleges have become too dependent "on international students from a few countries, such as China and India," 53 percent of private admissions directors said that was the case. Only 39 percent in public higher education shared that view.

But when asked if these trends applied to their own institutions, very few admissions leaders thought that was the case. Only 8 percent of admissions directors agreed that their college has become too dependent on full-pay international students. And only 15 percent said that they had become too dependent on students from just a few countries.

A key part of some colleges' international recruitment strategies has been "pathways" programs in which students who may lack the English-language proficiency to succeed in American colleges enroll in programs to improve their English so that they can then enroll at various colleges and universities. Currently, 28 percent of colleges' admissions directors report that they have a pathways program.

The survey suggests more growth ahead for the field. Of the colleges that do not have such a program, 26 percent are considering starting one.

Checking Social Media -- Sometimes to Reject Applicants or Revoke Acceptances

In June, the hot news in admissions was that Harvard University had revoked the acceptances of 10 applicants who had been admitted after they were found to have participated in a private Facebook group called "Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens." The group reportedly included jokes about abusing children and the Holocaust, and insulting remarks about members of various racial and ethnic groups.

The news stunned many -- and plenty of newly accepted students no doubt did some cleaning up of their social media feeds as a result. In this year's survey, Inside Higher Ed wanted to find out if Harvard was the exception in rejecting applicants or revoking acceptances over social media.

It turns out that these actions are rare, but not unheard-of, and more common at private than at public institutions. Four percent of admissions directors at independent colleges said their institutions had rejected students or revoked acceptances at least four times in the last two years. And at 14 percent of private colleges, that has happened at least once.

Number of Times in Last Two Years Decisions Have been Revoked or Applications Denied Over Social Media Posts

Number of TimesPublicPrivate
Two or three times2%3%
Four or more times1%4%

Facebook logoThe survey also found that only a minority of colleges have admissions officers routinely check on social media accounts of applicants, but here again the share was larger among private institutions (13 percent) than public institutions (2 percent).

Asked if colleges should check the social media accounts of applicants, only a minority agreed, but on this question the responses were close among public (15 percent) and private (14 percent). Larger shares of admissions leaders say that, even if the institutions don't check regularly, if they learn about bigotry on social media from applicants, they should factor that in to admissions decisions. At public institutions, 27 percent of admissions directors agreed that such consideration was appropriate, while 54 percent of private admissions directors said so.

Even if most colleges aren't now checking social media accounts, they back what Harvard did in revoking the acceptances -- although again, private college admissions leaders were more likely to do so.

Admissions Directors on Harvard's Decision to Revoke Acceptances of Those Who Participated in Bigoted Facebook Group

Strongly agree22%36%
Strongly disagree9%3%

The survey was in the field before another recent incident in which an admitted applicant had her acceptance revoked over a social media post. In this case, a private school noticed that one of its students -- who never asked for materials to be sent to the University of Rochester -- posted on social media that she was enrolling there. The student had told Rochester she was homeschooled, and when the university realized it hadn't seen her real record and that she had lied, it kicked her out (she had just arrived on campus).

The Impact of the 2016 Election on Colleges, Society and Recruiting Targets

Red, white and blue buttons, some saying "Vote," some saying "Trump."The 2016 presidential election surprised many in higher education who expected Hillary Clinton to win. In the months following the election and the inauguration of President Trump, many educators have been discussing whether the results suggest that higher education is out of touch with the public, and how the image of higher education (fair or not) impacts colleges and their admissions strategies.

At a gathering of private college counselors in June, many said that they were seeing an increase in parents vetoing their children's college choices over the perceived political orientation of institutions, with one counselor saying, "Brown is completely off the table."

At the same time, some college leaders have said that they were concerned by articles suggesting that higher education doesn't care about low-income white people. Still others have said that the real issues of inequality in American society remain the low college-going rate for black and Latino students, and the economic disparities in American education that favor white and Asian-American students.

How do admissions directors view these issues? Many remain concerned about traditional questions of diversity -- and fearful that the country is moving backward on issues about which they care. A healthy minority think that colleges need to do more recruiting in rural areas. And smaller minorities favor a focus on low-income white students or on conservative students.

Admissions Directors Agreeing With Statements on Higher Education, Postelection

StatementPublicPrivate Nonprofit
Higher education needs to redouble its efforts to recruit and retain underrepresented minority groups.86%66%
The election outcome suggests Americans are less committed than they were in the past to increasing the number of racial and ethnic minority students who attend college.44%35%
The election outcome indicates that colleges -- especially elite colleges -- should recruit more students from rural areas.42%32%
The election outcome indicates that colleges -- especially elite colleges -- should recruit more low-income white students.32%24%
Colleges with overwhelmingly liberal student bodies should increase recruiting efforts, including affirmative action, for conservative students.16%12%

In general, public and private college admissions directors leaned the same way on those statements, but in the cases of every group, public university admissions directors were more enthusiastic about increasing recruiting efforts.

The above question is about what colleges should do. The survey also asked the admissions directors if they were stepping up recruitment of certain groups. Again, admissions officials at public institutions were more likely to be doing so than were their private college counterparts.

Colleges That Are Stepping Up Recruitment of Certain Groups in Wake of Election

Rural students52%28%
Low-income white students41%22%
Conservative students9%8%

Image Problems

While the 2016 election and its aftermath led to some introspection from college leaders, many admissions directors see colleges suffering from all kinds of image problems beyond the election rhetoric. These image problems, depending on who is doing the analysis, relate to cost, value and debt, among other issues.

By large majorities, they see higher education (and, in some cases, their flow of applicants) limited by public perceptions of the sector.

Admissions Directors Agreeing With Public Perceptions of Higher Education

StatementPublicPrivate Nonprofit
Higher education needs to do a better job of explaining the value of earning college degrees.94%95%
Media reports of college graduates who are unemployed or underemployed have discouraged students from considering higher education.63%69%
Public discussion of student debt has discouraged students from considering higher education generally.61%66%
Public discussion of student debt has discouraged students from considering my college.36%78%

Autumn on a college campus.The issue of student debt is seen as having a particular impact on private colleges. And for those that are liberal arts colleges, image challenges are the norm, the survey results suggest.

Asked if prospective students understand the value of a liberal arts education, only 8 percent agreed that they do. Asked if parents understand the value of a liberal arts education, only 10 percent said that they do. (Note: These questions were focused on a liberal arts education, which could of course be obtained at many institutions that are not exclusively liberal arts colleges.)

Debt and Its Impact

While many admissions directors don't have full control (or in some cases much control at all) over their aid budgets, almost all of them worry about student debt. This year's survey found that 71 percent in public higher education and 89 percent in private higher education believe they are losing applicants due to concerns over debt.

The finding is significant, because the question is about applicants. Many colleges are generous, some exceptionally so, on student aid that minimizes the need to borrow. But if applicants don't apply, they won't know what they could have received.

Attitudes differ quite a bit among public and private institution admissions directors on how much debt is "reasonable" for an undergraduate to accumulate over a four-year period. Among private college admissions directors, 36 percent say it is reasonable to borrow more than $30,000, and 5 percent believe it is reasonable to borrow more than $50,000.

Only 10 percent of public university admissions directors say it is reasonable to borrow more than $30,000, and none of them are OK with borrowing more than $50,000.

At the same time, in public higher education, 6 percent of admissions directors believe it should be possible to borrow nothing and earn a degree in four years, compared to 8 percent in private higher education.

The actual average debt of bachelor's graduates who borrowed is just over $30,000.

Admissions Directors on Reasonable Debt Levels for Four-Year Degree

No debt at all6%0%
< $5,0007%1%
$5,000 to < $10,00017%2%
$10,000 to < $20,00031%19%
$20,000 to < $30,00028%42%
$30,000 to < $40,0009%23%
$40,000 to < $50,0001%8%
$50,000 or more0%5%

A Public-Private Split on Free Tuition

Not only do admissions leaders in public and private higher education view debt differently, but they view the idea of free tuition for public higher education differently as well. President Obama proposed the idea of free community college through a state-federal partnership. While his plan for such a partnership never gained traction, many community colleges and a few states have moved ahead with free tuition for two-year degrees. In the 2016 election campaign, Hillary Clinton proposed free tuition for undergraduates in public higher education.

Hillary Clinton and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at the signing of the bill creating New York's Excelsior Scholarship.When Clinton lost, many educators assumed that the free tuition idea (beyond community college) might be dead. But to the surprise of many, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed such a plan for New York State. And the Democratic governor won approval for the plan from the Legislature, inviting Clinton to appear with him (at right) for the bill-signing ceremony. There is talk of the idea spreading. Even if it doesn't, however, Cuomo has brought free tuition to most students who will enroll down the road in two of the nation's largest public higher education systems: the City University of New York and the State University of New York.

The 2017 survey asked admissions leaders questions about free tuition and found notable differences in attitudes. While public admissions leaders are more open to the idea, they have some skepticism as well, especially about financing issues. The last question in the table below was asked only of admissions directors in private higher education.

Admissions Directors Who Agree With Ideas Related to Free Tuition for Public Higher Education

Free public higher education remains a good idea to pursue.50%26%
Proponents of free tuition programs are not paying sufficient attention to long-term financing issues.64%86%
The idea of free public higher education poses a threat to private higher education.38%83%
Free public tuition, if adopted in my state, would pose a threat to my institution.n/a85%

The figures above combine "strongly agree" and "agree." On the last question, 63 percent of admissions directors at private colleges strongly agreed that free tuition would pose a threat to their institutions.

Disciplinary Records

Image of an orange check markIn the last academic year, many college admissions offices have debated whether they should continue to require applicants to report on disciplinary infractions during high school. A growing "ban the box" movement argues that such questions discourage the enrollment of students with disciplinary or criminal records who have been punished and are trying to move on with their lives. Many others note the difficulties many minority youth face dealing with local authorities, making it possible that many who are asked to check a box about their records may have been treated unfairly.

In July Louisiana became the first state to (with some exceptions) ban public colleges from asking these questions. But not everyone likes the idea. Critics say that colleges should ask these questions as part of their efforts to promote safe campus environments. In May Maryland's governor vetoed a bill to ban the box on college applications in the state.

Generally admissions directors at private colleges are more likely to ask the questions in the first place, and more likely to say that doing so is appropriate.

While 80 percent of private college admissions directors reported that their colleges ask some form of these questions, the figure was only 41 percent at public institutions. Among public institutions, the figure was above 70 percent for four-year institutions, but only 20 percent for community colleges.

When it comes to what colleges should do, a public-private divide is evident.

Admissions Leaders on What Applications Should Ask About Disciplinary or Legal Infractions

 PublicPrivate Nonprofit
Percent saying institutions should not ask any such questions21%11%
Percent saying institutions should limit the scope of such questions, for example by only asking about recent or violent incidents46%35%
Percent saying institutions should ask all applicants to report all disciplinary or legal infractions34%54%

Community Colleges’ Enrollment Declines

For many community colleges, the last academic year and the one before were a period of enrollment declines. Of community college admissions directors, 84 percent said that they had seen enrollment declines in the last two years. And 55 percent of those that were down reported that they were spending more on marketing to attract more students in the years ahead.

This year's survey asked community college admissions directors who experienced declines to offer their take on why the numbers were down. By far, the factor deemed having the greatest impact was an improved job picture for people without college degrees or certificates. And while some community college leaders see for-profit higher education as a competitor, others see more competition than in the past coming from four-year colleges.

The following table covers the results.

Community College Admissions Directors on Factors That Explain Enrollment Declines

 Very ImportantImportantMarginally ImportantNot Important
Improved employment prospects for those without college degrees or certificates55%36%10%0%
Insufficient marketing compared with for-profit higher education and other sectors35%39%21%5%
Cost of attendance24%31%28%17%
More competition from four-year colleges offering sub-baccalaureate programs23%29%36%11%
Lack of academic programs in fields students want17%31%40%12%