The (Needless?) Frenzy
From Inside Higher Ed
by, Scott Jaschik
More applications. More stress. Less certainty. For colleges and for college applicants, the admissions process has become more complicated, and that’s reflected in much of the data in the “2012 State of College Admission” report, issued today by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

But while the data show many ways that the process has become less predictable, they also show that the vast majority of colleges remain decidedly noncompetitive. That reality runs counter to much of the public discussion about college admissions, which tends to focus on the increasing difficulty of applicants being admitted to a small number of elite institutions.

This marks the 10th year that NACAC has released the report, although some data were collected for more than 10 years. To mark the report’s first decade, the association drew attention in the study to some shifts over 10 years. While plenty has remained the same, there are some notable changes, in particular a long-term decline in the significance colleges place on the high school class rank of and interviews with prospective students.

Looking at the data as a whole, David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at NACAC, said that “everything seems more amplified, from the applications, to the frequency and intensity of marketing, to the emphasis on various factors in admissions. Uncertainty seems to be the common theme.” In some ways, Hawkins said, it’s as if colleges and students were “chasing each other around a round table.”

Apps Are Up and Yields Are Down

The new report — based both on surveys of colleges and on statistics gathered from other sources — features many statistics that attest to the growth of applications and the impact of this growth on students and colleges:

  • Each year since 1997, a healthy majority of colleges (between 64 and 78 percent) reported receiving more applications than they did the prior year.
  • The percentage of students who submit three or more applications a year has been steadily rising, from 67 percent a year ago to 79 percent last year (the most recent for which data are available). The percentage of students who apply to seven or more colleges has also been going up, and hit 29 percent last year, up from 25 percent the year before.
  • For 2011, colleges reported that the average admissions counselor was responsible for reading 622 applications, up from an average of 359 in 2005. The pressure on admissions counselors to respond to large number of applicants is particularly evident at public institutions, where admissions officers are — on average — responsible for reading three times the number of applications of their private counterparts.

All of the data on the apparent flood of applications might seem to be reassuring to colleges. But at the same time that applications have been going up, “yield” — the percentage of admitted applicants who actually enroll — has been going down. Colleges rely on having a good sense of their yield rates so they can project how many applicants to admit so that they can build a strong class, and not have so many students showing up that there is no room. While colleges have historically had widely varying yield rates, many institutions had steady rates, allowing for planning. That’s no longer the case.

Between 2002 and 2011, colleges — public and private alike — reported significant drops in yield rates. The gap between public and private yield rates grew (with private rates dropping more) after the 2008 economic downturn.

Yield Rates for Public and Private 4-Year Colleges

Year Public Private
2002 51.4% 47.8%
2003 50.6% 45.7%
2004 49.1% 45.5%
2005 48.9% 44.2%
2006 47.5% 43.8%
2007 48.4% 44.2%
2008 46.2% 43.3%
2009 42.9% 38.4%
2010 42.9% 38.4%
2011 42.6% 36.4%

The yield declines have prompted colleges to re-evaluate their strategies and to look (thus far apparently without success) for ways to keep the rates steady, Hawkins said. “The formulas that they used to rely on to figure out how many students to accept have just been thrown out the window,” he added. “They really don’t have reliable means to predict.”

Hawkins said that a part of the annual study that he considers particularly valuable is the section on selectivity. The report shows that, over the last decade, both public and private four-year colleges have become more selective — but only modestly so. The average public four-year college now admits 66 percent of applicants, down from 70 percent a decade earlier. For private institutions, the current figure is 63 percent, down from 70 percent a decade ago.

“The vast majority of colleges accept two-thirds or more of their students,” Hawkins said.

“One of the biggest misperceptions about admissions is that the process of applying to college in the United States is like the process of applying to the Ivy league,” he said. “People accept that as the norm.”

What Counts in Admissions Decisions?

A part of the NACAC report that is always of interest to applicants involves a series of questions about whether certain factors are of “considerable importance” in colleges’ admissions decisions.

NACAC changed the wording for a few categories, making long-term comparisons inexact, but the current top-ranked item “grades in college preparatory courses,” or a slightly different version of the factor, has dominated the list for more than 20 years. For 2011, 84 percent of colleges reported that as a factor of considerable importance — and that level has remained fairly constant.

Two factors, however, have seen sharp declines over that time period in the share of colleges considering them important: class rank and candidate interviews. In 1993, 42 percent of colleges reported that class rank was of considerable importance. By 2011, that had dropped to 19 percent. In 1993, 12 percent of colleges reported that the interview was of considerable importance. In 2011, only 6 percent did.

Hawkins said that many high schools have stopped calculating class rank. Further, he said that admissions officers also voice concerns about the significance of rank for applicants who can report one. He noted that high schools vary so much in quality and size that any given percentile ranking could mean very different things at different high schools.

With interviews, Hawkins said that the growing number of applications has made it more difficult for many colleges to meet applicants one-on-one. Further, he said that some colleges fear that interviews may favor candidates (presumably with more money) who can afford to visit campus over those who can’t.

Considering Race or First-Generation Status?

Many college admissions officials are anxiously awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision (expected next year) on whether colleges can continue to consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions. The NACAC data show that only a minority of colleges currently consider race and ethnicity, and only a very small percentage consider race and ethnicity to be of “considerable importance.” The figures are similar for considering whether applicants are the first in their families to go to college. Both of those factors are considered important by more colleges than is gender.

Personal Characteristics and Admissions Decisions, 2011

How Colleges Use Factor First-Generation Status Race or Ethnicity Gender
Considerable Importance 3.5% 4.7% 4.7%
Moderate Importance 22.5% 21.0% 8.2%
Limited Importance 26.0% 21.8% 23.0%
No Importance 48.1% 52.5% 64.1%