Pressure to Build the Class: 2016 Survey of Admissions Directors

September 22, 2016

The pressure on college admissions offices to produce a new class is getting more intense, according to the 2016 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Directors. And the percentage of colleges that met their goals by May 1, the traditional date by which colleges aim to have created their class, is down.

The last year has seen many changes in college admissions -- a new SAT, the launch of a new college application to rival the Common Application, a shift in the calendar of applying for financial aid and a proposal by Hillary Clinton to make public higher education free for most Americans. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld the consideration of race and ethnicity by colleges in admissions decisions. And the Obama administration gave new momentum to a push to have colleges stop routinely asking about applicants’ criminal backgrounds.

Meanwhile concern about the debt faced by students and defining the value of higher education continued to grow.

About the Survey
Inside Higher Ed's 2016 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, Oct. 6, at 2 p.m. Eastern, Inside Higher Ed will present a free webinar to discuss the results of the survey. Sign up here.

The Inside Higher Ed survey of admissions directors was made possible in part by support from Hobsons, Jenzabar, NRCCUA, TimeTrade and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

On most of these issues, admissions directors appear divided -- sometimes along public and private college lines. The new version of the SAT has some fans but also appears to still have many skeptics -- especially of the writing test. And the new application from the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success appears to have a lot of work to do at winning over college admissions leaders.

Most admissions directors seem convinced that the Supreme Court decision gives them the protection they need to consider race and ethnicity in admissions. Few feel the need to do the kinds of studies the court suggested may be necessary to defend such policies.

And in a potentially notable finding, a significant minority of college admissions directors now say (in contrast to past surveys but consistent with the views of many advocates for Asian-American applicants) that their colleges generally admit only Asian applicants with higher grades and test scores than other applicants.

The results come from answers from 339 admissions directors (or officials with equivalent titles). Those responding were given complete anonymity, but their answers were coded by institution to provide for analysis by sector.

Meeting the Targets

This year, only 37 percent of admissions directors said they had met their student enrollment goals for the fall class by May 1. That’s down from 42 percent a year ago -- a figure that was the same last year for public and private colleges.

This year, the proportion of private colleges that met their goals by May 1 was only down one percentage point -- to 41 percent. But the percentage of public colleges and universities meeting the May 1 deadline was down dramatically -- to 29 percent.

Digging into the data, the decline is almost entirely due to the community college sector. It is important to note that community colleges don’t focus on the May 1 deadline to the same degree as other sectors and routinely recruit new students throughout the summer. Still, a year ago, 20 percent of community colleges were reporting that they had met their targets by May 1. This year the total is only 9 percent, which does not bode well for community colleges that have been fighting enrollment declines. And that's not the only evidence that many community colleges are struggling with enrollment -- 88 percent report that they are down compared to two years ago.

All of the data on meeting targets of course run counter to the hysteria in much of the news media suggesting that it’s nearly impossible to get into college. As surveys by the National Association for College Admission Counseling have shown, the vast majority of colleges admit the vast majority of applicants -- and the pressure is on those admissions directors who can’t be sure of meeting their goals.

Consistent with the continued pressure on admissions directors, the proportion who said they were “very concerned” about meeting their goals this year rose to 54 percent from 51 percent. And the percentage reporting that they weren’t worried at all fell from 7 percent to 5 percent.

A New Application

A year ago, the big buzz at the NACAC annual meeting was the announcement of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, a group of elite public and private colleges that aimed to make the application process more personal, more open to the needs of individual students and colleges and more educational. At the NACAC meeting, coalition members heard plenty of skepticism and vowed to explain in the months ahead just what their effort entailed and why it would help colleges and students.

To judge from the Inside Higher Ed survey, the coalition still has a lot of work to do. Among the findings:

  • Only 29 percent of admissions directors agree or strongly agree that the Common Application needs to have more competition, compared to 49 percent who disagree or strongly disagree. This finding suggests that the Common Application has repaired much of the damage from its technology meltdown two years ago that left many colleges frustrated to be stuck without what they considered viable alternatives to the Common App.
  • Only 23 percent of admissions directors agree or strongly agree that the “digital locker” -- an online tool the coalition is creating to let high school students save materials throughout their high school careers -- is a good way to prepare for college and the admissions process. Thirty-eight percent disagree or strongly disagree.
  • Only 8 percent of admissions directors agree or strongly agree that the coalition has done a good job of explaining its process to colleges and their applicants -- compared to 68 percent who disagree or strongly disagree.
  • And only 15 percent of admissions directors agree or strongly agree that the coalition application would encourage more applications from minority and disadvantaged applicants (a rationale offered by many coalition supporters). Fifty-seven percent disagree or strongly disagree.

Annie Reznik, executive director of the coalition, said she wasn't surprised by some of the negative reactions, even if she thought they might not reflect the work the group has been doing. "Any new initiative brings hesitancy and skepticism," she said via email.

And much of the initial public discussion, she said, didn't focus on efforts by member colleges to increase outreach to disadvantaged students. Numerous efforts have been started in recent months by the group and by its member colleges to increase college awareness in low-income areas and to talk to more students about the importance of college. In time, she said, people will see that the coalition is about these efforts, not just the application.

Much has been misunderstood about the locker, she said, but that is proceeding with positive results. "Many individuals external to the coalition have identified additional, excellent uses for this student space," she said. "Some ideas include: supporting a portfolio grading system using the locker, encouraging students to save pieces from an English class’s personal writing unit in their lockers, collecting letters of recommendation from service work that could be shared with a teacher or counselor, scanning a copy of a student’s hard-earned compliment card for providing great service at work."

The New SAT

Since Inside Higher Ed's 2015 admissions survey, the College Board has started using a new SAT, designed to align itself more closely than the previous version with a college-preparatory high school curriculum. A key feature of the new SAT was to revamp the widely criticized writing test.

The response of admissions directors to these changes appears underwhelming. And the new writing test is not attracting broad support. Nor is ACT's writing test.

Admissions Directors on the SAT and ACT Writing Tests

Statement Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
The new SAT version represents a significant improvement over the old version. 2% 12% 65% 13% 9%
I expect more colleges to go test optional in the years ahead. 26% 47% 22% 4% 2%
I consider the writing test on the SAT to be a good measure of student writing ability. 0% 19% 44% 21% 16%
I consider the writing test on the ACT to be a good measure of student writing ability. 2% 18% 44% 22% 15%

The expectation that more colleges will go test optional may be of concern to both the College Board and the ACT, although it is important to note that most applicants to most test-optional colleges continue to submit scores.

But the test-optional numbers are growing. Just this week, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a critic of standardized testing, released data showing that half of the colleges on U.S. News & World Report's list of the top 100 liberal arts colleges are test optional.

Also this week, ACT released a report questioning the rationale behind colleges going test optional. The report says that these policies are based on false assumptions and that test scores add to the information admissions officers need.

Race and Admissions

The Supreme Court ruled in June that colleges have the right to consider race and ethnicity in admissions (and presumably also in financial aid) in certain circumstances. The ruling came in a challenge to the policies of the University of Texas at Austin in litigation that had been going on for years. The Supreme Court ruling cited the research Texas did over the years to show why it needed to consider race in admissions -- and the decision said that colleges need to have conducted such studies to consider race.

The survey results suggest that relatively few colleges have done or plan to do such studies. This may be because many colleges do not consider race in admissions (and aren't competitive in admissions). But this could make some colleges vulnerable to lawsuits.

Nearly three-fourths (73 percent) of admissions directors said they believed the Supreme Court ruling would preserve the legal right to consider race and ethnicity for the foreseeable future.

But only 13 percent of colleges said they conducted studies similar to those the Supreme Court cited as making the Texas approach legal. And only 24 percent said they planned to either start or continue such studies.

Only 4 percent said they planned to change admissions practices in light of the court’s ruling.

Critics of affirmative action, during the months before the Supreme Court ruled, repeatedly argued that colleges’ current practices have the impact of making it more difficult for Asian-American applicants to win admission.

This year’s survey asked the admissions directors two questions related to that argument. A significant minority indicated that they believe Asian-American applicants are held to a higher standard generally, and that this is the case at their institutions.

Admissions Directors on Asian-American Applicants

Statement Public % Yes Private % Yes
Do you believe that some colleges are holding Asian-American applicants to higher standards? 39% 42%

At your college, do Asian-American applicants who are admitted generally have higher grades and test scores than other applicants?

41% 30%

The Clinton Plan on Paying for College

This year's survey comes at a time when Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, has proposed a radical change in how public higher education is financed. Originally she proposed a plan that would make public higher education debt free. But she refined the plan in July, moving it in the direction of ideas proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders, her primary opponent.

Her current plan would eventually make in-state public higher education free for everyone from families with income up to $125,000, while also making various reforms in student loans and providing grants to minority-serving institutions and other colleges that serve many disadvantaged students.

The survey found that admissions directors are split on the plan, although private college admissions directors are fairly strongly against it. And while public admissions directors don't necessary back the plan, most think that their institutions would benefit. Finally, relatively few admissions directors think the plan will be enacted in its current form.

How Admissions Directors View the Clinton Plan

  % Strongly Favor % Favor % Neutral % Oppose % Strongly Oppose
Public 20% 18% 26% 22% 14%
Private 8% 14% 13% 24% 41%

How Admissions Directors Think Clinton Plan Would Affect Their Institution

  % Would Help % Not Make Much Difference % Would Hurt
Public 46% 28% 26%
Private 4% 20% 75%

Only 17 percent of admissions directors believe that the plan in substantial form could be enacted within two years of Clinton taking office, should she win the election.

How Much Debt Is Too Much Debt?

The Clinton plan and the Sanders plan before it are the result of increased anxiety among students, graduates and parents about student loans.

Survey results suggest that admissions directors are aware of these concerns and see an impact on applications. More than half (51 percent) of admissions directors at public universities said they believe they are losing applicants due to concerns about debt. And 87 percent of those in private higher education feel this way.

These findings are important to colleges because so many of them offer significant aid packages to needy students and many to middle-income students as well. But those who don't apply are unlikely to find out about such aid -- and so may be writing off colleges that they could in fact afford.

But while admissions directors are aware of potential applicants' debt worries, they also continue to have high expectations about what students should be willing to borrow. At a time when average debt for a four-year degree is close to $30,000, a substantial minority of private college admissions directors think it is reasonable to expect students to borrow more than that. But there is a gap between public and private institutions.

Asked a reasonable amount to borrow for a four-year degree, 35 percent of private college admissions directors gave figures of $30,000 and up, and 14 percent gave figures of $40,000 and up. In contrast, only 7 percent in public higher education viewed levels over $30,000 as reasonable, and no one in public higher education viewed $40,000 and up as reasonable. Generally, community college officials are the most debt averse, given the low tuition rates at their institutions.

Admissions Directors on Reasonable Debt Levels for Four-Year Degree

  Public Private
No debt at all 2% 0%
< $5,000 5% 2%
$5,000 to < $10,000 21% 3%
$10,000 to < $20,000 37% 15%
$20,000 to < $30,000 27% 45%
$30,000 to < $40,000 7% 21%
$40,000 to < $50,000 0% 10%
$50,000 or more 0% 4%

Impact of Prior-Prior Year

On the financial aid front, colleges are seeing a major calendar change. Starting in 2016 for the 2017-18 academic year, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid will be available earlier, in October rather than January. As such, applicants will be able to use income information from two-year-old completed tax returns rather than sometimes incomplete information from the previous year. Proponents believe that this change, known as prior-prior year, will encourage more low-income students to apply to college and for financial aid.

Only a minority of admissions directors -- 25 percent in public higher education and 15 percent in private higher education -- expect to see more applications from disadvantaged students as a result of prior-prior year. Of course, even if that is an accurate projection, that could mean a significant increase in the number of disadvantaged students over all.

Colleges are making adjustments in their schedules. This is a complicated and sometimes controversial issue. The U.S. Education Department has urged colleges to accept applications earlier but not to move up deadlines -- again to maximize the time available to reach disadvantaged students. Some colleges have said that the department's expectations may be unrealistic.

The survey findings show (with similar reactions from public and private higher education):

  • 39 percent of admissions directors agree or strongly agree that their institutions will be making admissions decisions earlier than in the past. Forty-three percent disagree or strongly disagree.
  • 66 percent agree or strongly agree that their institutions will make financial aid awards earlier in the year than in the past, while only 19 percent disagree or strongly disagree.
  • 43 percent of admissions leaders agree or strongly agree that their colleges are likely to change one or more key dates in the admissions and financial aid process, while 38 percent disagree or strongly disagree.

Applying for financial aid is of course only one part of the admissions process. Generally, admissions directors don't think the process is as smooth as it should be.

Only 19 percent of admissions directors agree or strongly agree that "applicants and their families find the process for applying to college easy to understand." But 44 percent disagree or strongly disagree.

The Movement to Ban the Box

The past year has seen momentum for the movement -- known as "ban the box" -- to remove questions on applications about applicants' legal and disciplinary records. In May, the Obama administration urged colleges to consider whether these questions are really necessary and -- if so -- whether they are being asked in the right ways. The month, the board of the State University of New York voted to remove from the 64-campus system's application a question asking applicants to declare prior felony convictions.

The Inside Higher Ed survey suggests that college admissions directors are split on the issue, with private college admissions directors more likely than their public counterparts to currently ask such questions and to favor asking such questions.

Admissions Leaders' Views on Disciplinary and Legal Questions

Question Public % Yes Private % Yes
Does your college seek information, either from applicants or their high schools, on whether applicants have a disciplinary or legal record? 43% 87%
Is your college reconsidering whether such information is an appropriate criterion? (asked only of those who currently seek such information) 26% 24%
Are admissions officers at your institution provided with special training on how to evaluate disciplinary or legal information? (asked only of those who currently seek such information) 49% 48%

Inside Higher Ed also asked the admissions directors what questions should be asked in this area. This is an important issue, because some people think that it is legitimate to ask about serious, violent crime, but that questions about all disciplinary records may go too far in discouraging some from seeking a higher education. Note again a public/private split in the answers.

Admissions Directors on What Should Be Asked

Statement Public % Yes Private % Yes
Institutions should not ask any questions about applicants’ disciplinary or legal infractions. 23% 2%
Institutions should significantly limit the scope of disciplinary or legal infractions that they ask applicants
about (for example: only recent incidents or violent
45% 49%
Institutions should ask all applicants to report all disciplinary or legal infractions. 33% 49%

The Value of Higher Education, the Liberal Arts and More

Many college leaders (and not just admissions directors) have been struggling of late with the image of higher education as it relates to what young people hope to achieve. Will they be employed? What should they expect from college? Do the liberal arts mean anything?

The survey results show strong support among admissions directors for the view that higher education in general needs to do a better job of explaining the value of college. And this appears to be even more the case for the liberal arts.

Statement % Public Agree/ Strongly Agree % Private Agree/ Strongly Agree
Higher education needs to do a better job of explaining the value of earning college degrees. 81% 90%
Media reports of college graduates who are unemployed or underemployed have discouraged
students from considering higher education.
49% 59%
Prospective students understand the value of a liberal arts education. 10% 15%
Parents of prospective students understand the value of a liberal arts education. 14% 16%

Other Selected Findings:

  • Pathways programs are being widely used, especially in public higher education. The programs, often run by an outside provider or a separate office within an institution, are a combination of academic course work and English language course work designed to prepare international students for degree programs in the United States. More than half of admissions leaders at public colleges and universities (52 percent) and a smaller share at private colleges (15 percent) say they have the programs. Of those at institutions without them, 32 percent of admissions directors at public colleges and 22 percent at private colleges are exploring the option.
  • Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of admissions directors report that their institutions have been seeking more out-of-state students, and 85 percent report that they have been having success.
  • More colleges have been adding questions about sexual orientation or gender identity to applications. This trend is backed by 33 percent of admissions directors at public colleges and universities and 48 percent at private institutions.

Follow me on Twitter at @ScottJaschik.


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