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The process of building a class to educate has never been easy. In recent years, community colleges and nonelite liberal arts colleges have had great difficulties.

But this year, fear and anxiety spread throughout higher education, according to the 2020 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Officials, conducted by Gallup between Aug. 6 and 30. The survey of 433 senior admissions officials (only one per institution) found:

  • A record number were very concerned about filling their classes.
  • A majority (also a record) not only did not fill their classes by May 1 (the traditional deadline) but did not fill their classes by July 1.
  • A significant minority of private colleges said they were taking advantage of rules changes made by the National Association for College Admission Counseling to recruit students.
  • Most colleges expect enrollment to decrease this year.
  • A majority of those that went test optional or test blind during the pandemic do not expect to ever restore a standardized testing requirement in admissions.
  • Private college officials were much more likely than their public counterparts to say they played a "key role" in deciding what the college would do this fall, with regard to campus openings.

About the Survey

Inside Higher Ed's 2020 Survey of College and University Admissions Officers was conducted in conjunction with researchers from Gallup. Inside Higher Ed regularly surveys key higher ed professionals on a range of topics.

You may download a full survey report here.

On Thursday, Oct. 22, at 2 p.m. Eastern, Inside Higher Ed will present a free webcast to discuss the results of the surveys. Sign up here.

The Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions directors was made possible in part by support from, Niche, TargetX and Hobsons.

"These results confirm that 2020 will be a year that all of us in college admission will be happy to get through in one piece," said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "The struggle to recruit students was already intense, and it is evident that colleges’ existing concerns about meeting enrollment goals will only get more intense. Our hope is that we can make use of this crisis to change course in our public policy to view education as a public good, rather than a private good. It is clear that as a country, we are not optimizing our capacity in higher education to meet student demand. If we were to refocus on treating higher education as an adequately funded public good, this never-ending cycle of enrollment-driven anxiety -- along with the accompanying side effects of intense competition -- would be disrupted and alleviated, at least to a degree."

Mary Ann Willis, director of college counseling at the Bayside Academy, in Alabama, said, "Both sides of the admissions desk -- high school and college -- must work harder than ever to maximize access to opportunity for students. Thinking less about the name on a building, and more about quality college preparation and readiness, in and out of the classroom, might be a place to start."

Six in 10 admissions officials said they were very concerned about meeting their institution's enrollment goals for this fall. Another 30 percent said they were concerned. Sixty-nine percent of community college admissions officials said they were very concerned.

Last year, and in the three years prior to last year, the percentage answering the question "very concerned" was either 54 or 55 percent, and in the three years before that it was 51, 47 and 46 percent.

Answers to the Question: How Concerned Were You About Meeting Your Institution's Goals for New Students?

 Public DoctoralPublic Master's/Bachelor'sCommunity CollegesPrivate Doctoral/Master'sPrivate Bachelor's
Very concerned48%59%69%60%55%
Moderately concerned42%30%21%35%34%
Not too concerned10%9%8%6%7%
Not concerned at all0%2%2%0%4%

Similarly, 56 percent of officials said they did fill their classes by July 1. The traditional date (except for community colleges) is May 1, a goal met by only 26 percent of colleges this year. Of the categories in the survey, only public doctoral universities (at 39 percent) did not have a majority of colleges not meeting their goals by July 1. In every category, fewer colleges met the May 1 target this year than last year.

Answers to the Question: When Did You Fill Your Class?

 Public DoctoralPublic Master's/Bachelor'sCommunity CollegesPrivate Doctoral/Master'sPrivate Bachelor's
Prior to May 136%28%23%20%28%
Prior to June 119%8%5%15%9%
Prior to July 15%9%8%13%8%
Not by July 139%58%64%52%56%

A minority of colleges said they took advantage of the NACAC rules changes. NACAC, under pressure from the Justice Department for alleged antitrust violations, changed its rules for good recruitment practice. NACAC no longer bans the promise of special housing, enhanced financial aid packages, and special scholarships for early-decision admits. Nor does NACAC insist on colleges adhering to a May 1 deadline for recruitment incentives.

When the rules passed, many at the meeting predicted that -- at the beginning -- only a few colleges would take advantage.

But the pandemic led colleges to change their views. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of colleges said they were offering new incentives to get students. Only community colleges had a low percentage -- 6 percent.

The reason: colleges are changing their rules as they recruit students. As of the time the survey was conducted (in August), only some colleges were expecting increases in enrollment this year.

Answer to the Question: This Year, Do You Expect Undergraduate Enrollment to Be …?

 Public DoctoralPublic Master's/Bachelor'sCommunity CollegesPrivate Doctoral/Master'sPrivate Bachelor's
Higher than fall 201915%16%4%20%26%
The same37%29%19%21%26%
Less than 5% lower20%10%14%16%16%
5% to less than 10% lower23%25%21%25%14%
10% to less than 15% lower5%18%22%13%9%
More than 15% lower0%3%17%5%9%

One possible approach to fewer students is to admit those who wouldn't have been admitted in the past. Twenty-eight percent of colleges said they would have such a strategy. The numbers were higher in the public sector (except community colleges), with 39 percent at public doctoral institutions answering yes, and 41 percent answering yes at public master's/bachelor's institutions.

Standardized Tests

One of the changes many colleges made in light of the COVID-19 pandemic was to go either test optional or test blind on admissions. (In test-blind admissions, SAT or ACT scores are not even examined if submitted.)

Most colleges that were not already test optional or test blind have converted, but some only for a year or two. The survey found that 52 percent of colleges changed in the last year. (Of the remaining colleges, 35 percent were already test optional or test blind.)

This development raises the question of whether they will go back to using the tests once the pandemic subsides. More than two-thirds of colleges (68 percent) that switched because of the pandemic said that they expect to stay that way. The figure was 60 percent at public institutions and 79 percent at private institutions.

Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and a long-standing critic of standardized testing, said, "The survey results are consistent with past experience: once admissions offices experiment with ACT/SAT-optional policies, they see that reviewing applicants as more than a score advances both the diversity and academic quality goals of their institutions."

He said it was "not surprising that officials at public campuses say they are less likely to remain test optional. Unlike at private colleges where admissions policies are set by experienced professionals based on data, many public university decision makers are political appointees who seek to promote ideologically influenced assessment agendas."

FairTest is currently urging all colleges that switched for a year "to extend those policies for at least several more years to allow sufficient time for collecting evidence about their consequences."

The College Board did not respond to a question about the survey results.

But Kenton Pauls, ACT's national director of higher education, said via email that "in the face of many unknowns and major shifts in education, schools are making decisions they regard to be in the best interest of their institutions and the students they serve, and we respect that autonomy."

But he added, "However, we expect demand for testing to remain high. Even at the most well-known and outspoken test optional institutions, the vast majority of their applicants actually opt in to testing, still choosing to submit test scores. Students, counselors and families know that the submission of test scores can serve to effectively differentiate a student’s application and improve admission and scholarship prospects. Even now, as we see a growing number of institutions adopting test optional policies, the demand from students desiring to test is soaring. We’re working to accommodate that desire for students to earn a score and show what they know as an important piece in a holistic admission process. As we’ve said for years, and other independent research has confirmed, test scores -- along with grades -- offer the best predictor of success."

Pauls added that "it's always important to note that grade inflation has been tethered and tempered by the objectivity and stability offered by standardized testing. As more high school transcripts (courses and GPAs) are reviewed without the benefits of the ballast of standardized testing, it’s likely to show -- in new ways -- some of the same systemic inequities and challenges, which ACT data has been describing (not driving) for years."

Were Colleges Prepared?

Generally, the admissions officials thought that their offices and their colleges were only somewhat prepared for the pandemic. Nearly half (48 percent) of public colleges gave "somewhat prepared" as an answer to the question about their institution's preparedness. A lower number at private colleges (41 percent) gave the same answer. Generally, private colleges got better grades. Forty percent said they were well prepared or very well prepared. Only 33 percent of public colleges gave that score to their institutions.

On the question of how their college admissions office was prepared for the pandemic, they had more praise but were still in the middle. Among public officials, 45 percent said they were somewhat prepared, 31 percent said that they were well prepared and 11 percent said very well prepared. Among private college officials, 37 percent said somewhat prepared, 36 percent said well prepared and 19 percent said very well prepared.

Asked if they were a key player in the decision about the fall (whether to have an all-in-person or fully remote semester), private colleges' officials were much more likely than their public counterparts to say that they were a real player (59 percent to 29 percent). Private college admissions leaders are also more likely than their public counterparts to say they agreed with the decision to be in person or remote (94 percent to 84 percent).

And notably, private colleges' admissions leaders have more confidence in their plans than their public counterparts.

Answer to the Question: How Confident Are You That Your College's Plan Will Remain for the Entire Semester?

 Public CollegesPrivate Colleges
Very confident22%23%
Moderately confident39%50%
Not very confident26%20%
Not confident at all13%7%

Another question asked was about groups of students the colleges will increase recruitment of. Online students showed the largest increase and international students the largest decrease.

Online students51%62%
First-generation college students68%76%
Students older than 2451%59%
Part-time undergraduates39%46%
Minority students77%84%
Transfer students72%78%
Full-time undergraduates80%81%
Full-pay students44%45%
Veterans/military personnel52%52%
Students recruited with merit scholarships50%49%
Out-of-state students57%49%
International students45%31%

Said Hawkins of NACAC, “Colleges will have to expand their reach to recruit students, as evidenced by their continued emphasis on recruiting transfer students, underrepresented students and adult learners. What will make this task more difficult is the financial crunch that the pandemic has imposed. At the state and federal levels, we have to make sure that students who want to enroll in college are able to do so without regard to their financial circumstances.”