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What’s up with growth in applicant pools? #admissions, #highered

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Last week I received an email message from a good friend who is relatively new to higher ed and to the modern world of college admissions. He was putting together a profile for the incoming class at the university where he works. Like any good marketer, he wanted to provide some trend data and went about the work of gathering all of the tid-bits about which we in admissions like to brag. It was during this collection process that one trend stood out to him and he asked me the following questions:

1. Why have the number of applications skyrocketed?

2. And, why haven’t we seen enrollment increased proportionately?

I thought to myself (and responded to him), “excellent question.”

So, here are some thoughts I put together in my response.

While the simple answer is that there are more students applying to more colleges I think the real answer is a little more nuanced.

First, I think applications have exploded because prospective students and their parents are savvier shoppers and recognize that applying to more colleges allows them to “hedge their bet” for admission and financial assistance. All of the trend data that I’ve seen suggests that the average number of applications submitted has grown and I have to believe that this is in response to off-the-charts selectivity we witness and the economics of choosing a college that is affordable.

A second reason, I believe applications have skyrocketed is that colleges (admissions offices specifically) have introduced marketing elements to the application itself and the application process (think “Fast Application” programs a.k.a. “Crap Applications). Colleges have intentionally made it easier to apply…in the name of access and choice. In addition to Fast Application programs, The Common Application’s (the original Fast Application and marketing application program) membership has grown dramatically and we now have the Universal Application , too. When colleges waive the application fee, accelerate the timetable to learn of the admissions decision and generally “make things easier,” applications will grow.

A third reason that applications have grown can be traced to a decision made by US News in 2003, when they dropped yield (conversion of accepted students to enrolled) from their formula. I believe an unintended consequence of this decision which was to punish all of those places pushing early decision programs was that colleges and US News began to place more emphasis on selectivity (% of applicants admitted), which became proxy for how great a college is or is not. And, to be frank, most colleges were not (and are not) in a position to accept fewer students and meet their enrollment goals. So, colleges had to grow their pool to continue to accept an adequate, often increasing, number of students to meet their enrollment goals, but a smaller percentage of their applicant pool. This emphasis on “demand,”as represented by the size of the applicant pool has become an obsession by many admissions offices, administrations, presidents and Boards.

Related to “demand” is the fact that college admissions offices need something to brag about annually and an ever increasing applicant pool has become just that. With limited resources (beds, classrooms, professors, etc), colleges and universities cannot always bank on enrolling “the largest class” to celebrate their success. The conversation has instead turned to “we attracted the largest applicant pool in history from which we selected this outstanding group of students.”

A final reason applicant pools have skyrocketed is because bond raters care about the size of the applicant pool and view it as proxy for market- and mind-share. They’ve not yet figured out that there are countless strategies to increase the size of an applicant pool, but the increase does not correlate directly with whether a college or university is better or stronger. They may or may not figure this out, but until they do colleges will need to continue to build larger and larger pools.

This is how I would address the questions put before me. I am sure others have views and I welcome those.

I want to be clear that I am describing the reality as I view it. I am not judging or suggesting that these things are bad for higher ed or college admissions…this is simply our new reality.

What are your thoughts about why applications have skyrocketed?

W. Kent Barnds (a.k.a @bowtieadmission)

 

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