Call it the college admissions season of contradictions.
At some selective campuses, plummeting admission rates during the 2021-22 college admissions cycle has made student prospects even more unpredictable. At the same time, many smaller public universities and institutions desperately want more applicants, and worry they won’t attract enough students to fill their class.
Neither colleges nor students are entirely sure what fall 2021 will look like. While students are optimistic about a possible return to in-person instruction in the fall, many are wondering how changes in standardized testing policies and Last year’s deferrals have affected your ability to get into the schools of your choice. Universities are less sure than ever about who will show up on campus in September.
“The most selective institutions are receiving far more applications than they normally do, which will only make them appear even more selective,” says David Hawkins, director of education and policy for the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC). .
The more applicants a university has, the lower its admission rate will be. Dartmouth, for example, reported an admission rate of 6.17%, the lowest in its history, with a record 28,000 students applying. The University of Southern California (USC) admission rate fell from 16% to 12% with an applicant pool of 70,000, up 20% from the previous year.
Still, Hawkins says it’s a misconception that college admissions are more competitive overall than in the past.
“When you focus on that narrow band of highly selective colleges, yes, they are getting more selective,” he says. “But they represent a very small percentage of the general four-year college population.”
Hawkins points out that the most selective institutions only represent a handful of the 4,000 higher education institutions in the United States. For the past ten years, the average acceptance rate for four-year colleges is 65%, she says. And for students who haven’t applied or aren’t happy with where they got admitted, there are still plenty of colleges with places available.
Test-Optional Policies Help Drive Increased Applications
The surge in applications is due to a number of factors, experts say. After a year of remote learning and with many colleges announcing in-person instruction in the fall, students have a pent-up demand to leave the nest.
But one of the main drivers is that hundreds of colleges have stopped requiring standardized test scores for admission. Optional test and blind test policies, where colleges consider SAT and ACT scores only if the student takes them or sometimes don’t take them, have encouraged more students to apply to schools they may not have previously considered.
Gianna Jirak, a senior at CD Hylton Senior High School in Woodbridge, Virginia, applied to New York University for the early decision, where she plans to study journalism. She scored 1200 on the SAT and decided not to submit her test scores. She says the test-optional policies encouraged her classmates to apply to more competitive schools.
“Exams have always been a barrier for students, especially students of color, who feel like they could go to big private institutions,” she says.
Jirak isn’t sure he got into NYU before the change in testing policy. “While I have faith in my grades and extracurricular activities, my SAT score would never have gotten me in,” he says.
Elissa Salas, executive director of College Track, a nonprofit organization focused on college access, is encouraged by many colleges’ moves toward blind and optional exam policies, as she says it makes the process easier. more equitable for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. She describes the current admissions cycle as “fairer” rather than “more competitive.”
While the number of student spots on campus may stay the same, the colleges that are admitting look different than in years past. Many colleges report the most diverse freshman class they have ever admitted.
At Rutgers University in New Jersey, “what we’re seeing with the optional test is that more low-income students are being admitted, because this negates the bias of the SAT/ACT test based on family income and circumstances,” says Courtney McAnuff, vice chancellor for enrollment management.
Another unknown in the current admissions cycle is the role that deferments could play in the number of students from the high school class of 2021 who could be admitted. Many universities were more flexible with deferment policies last fall due to the pandemic, with some institutions like Harvard and Stanford reporting that around 20% of their 2020 admissions were deferred.
Hawkins says the impact the postponements will have is going to depend a lot on the institution. Some colleges may have an “enrollment surge” in which they temporarily increase capacity and some institutions may welcome more freshmen to offset declining enrollment of current students. In others, the deferrals “could have the effect of reducing capacity in the freshman class,” meaning it’s harder for applicants this year to get a spot.
McAnuff said that at Rutgers, 500 2020 graduates have deferred admission until the fall of 2021. “As we determine which of those 500 will enroll, the spaces available for 2021 students shrink,” he says.
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What options remain for undecided students?
Despite the record number of applications, universities are unsure who will accept their offers of admission, so officials say they are hedging their bets with longer waiting lists.
But McAnuff doesn’t recommend waiting to make a decision in the hope that a student will get off the waiting list.
“I certainly wouldn’t turn down a school before May 1, if you have a valid offer to another school you want,” he says. “It’s going to be very difficult to get into the ‘outreach schools’ this year because they’ve had such a large number of applications.”
Most colleges seem to keep May 1 as decision day, the traditional deadline for admitted students to inform the college if they plan to enroll. But some colleges can still be lenient if students apply for an extension.
“I suspect what will happen this year is that the deadline will at least be flexible in many cases,” says NACAC’s Hawkins.
Serving a largely disadvantaged, low-income student population, College Track uses a “best fit model” when advising its students on which college to choose. But there are some general tips that all students can use.
“Go to a school where you leave with less debt than the national average, go to a school that has higher than average graduation rates, and make sure there are support services on campus,” says Salas.
For students who have not yet been accepted anywhere they want to attend, stay tuned in early May when NACAC will post a list of colleges still accepting applications after the May 1 deadline on its website. Hawkins also recommends considering community colleges, which may be particularly attractive given the current economic uncertainty.
While there are still many unknowns, the current admissions cycle looks more like “normal” years compared to 2020.
“Last year there was not only uncertainty about where children were going and schools closed, but [also] much more financial uncertainty than what we are seeing here now that the economy is opening up a little more,” says Salas. “So overall, the trends look more like a regular admissions year, except we have students who are casting a wider net than before.”
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