By now, college acceptances (or rejections) are in the hands of high school seniors. Over the next few weeks, those who haven’t already decided where they are going to school next fall will make their decisions. The month ahead is a time of high anxiety for students and their parents — and for admissions deans at most colleges and universities.
The only certainty in college admissions these days is uncertainty. Application totals at most institutions have soared in recent years — up 7 percent, on average, in 2016 from the year before, the most recent cycle studied — as students hedged their bets and applied to more colleges than ever. Encouraged by the relative ease of the process compared to 20 years ago, the proportion of college freshmen who applied to seven or more colleges reached 35 percent in 2016, up from 17 percent a decade ago, and from just 9 percent in 1990.
Some eight in 10 freshmen in 2016 applied to at least three colleges. While all colleges experienced more applications, the rich got richer: The most-selective institutions — those that accept fewer than half of applicants and represent only about 20 percent of American higher education — accounted for 37 percent of all college applications in 2016.
As more students apply, colleges have a difficult time predicting how many will actually show up. The average yield rate — the number of accepted students who enroll — was 35 percent in 2016, down from nearly 50 percent in 2002. That means at most colleges only a third of students who are accepted end up enrolling.
What makes predicting yield so tough for many colleges and universities is that even students who demonstrate genuine interest in a campus don’t always enroll. Nearly 25 percent of this year’s college freshmen who were admitted to their first-choice school did not enroll there, according to a survey released recently of 4,600 college freshmen by EAB, a higher education consulting company.
The reason those students gave for passing on their first-choice school? Money. Some 71 percent said the college was too expensive or they received a better financial aid package elsewhere.
No wonder colleges are offering deeper tuition discounts than ever. Tuition-discount rates for first-time, full-time freshmen hit a record 49.1 percent last year, according to an annual survey from the National Association of College and University Business Officers. While most of those financial aid offers have already arrived for this year’s high school seniors, there were reports last spring that a few colleges continued to negotiate discounts after the traditional May 1 deadline for applicants to make their deposits for a spot in the freshman class.
The financial considerations of students go beyond dollars and cents. Families increasingly are looking at the economic value of the majors that colleges offer, according to the EAB survey. That has become easier in recent years as a slew of rankings and websites now display earnings of graduates, sometimes even by majors.
One of the more popular of these new sites is the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard (collegescorecard.ed.gov), which includes five key pieces of data about a college: costs, graduation rate, loan default rate, average amount borrowed and employment. The scorecard was launched in 2015, and soon after, colleges with higher average salaries saw a surge of interest from prospective students, especially from students with the highest test scores.
How students weigh the economic payback of their degree is being reflected in their choice of major. Simply put, more students are majoring in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and business, and fewer in the humanities. Colleges, for instance, have seen a nearly 40 percent increase in the share of students majoring in the natural sciences since 1995.
In the next couple of weeks as deposits roll in, admissions officers will try to figure out why they lost students to competing schools. But finding the answer to that question is often a puzzle, said Richard Hesel, a principal with the Art & Science Group, a Baltimore admissions consulting firm that works with colleges. “For most kids and families, the college search is not going to be a rational process,” Hesel said. “There’s no checklist. That’s expecting too much.”
Often the decisions of 18-year-olds cannot be explained. Students make selections based on a fuzzy concept called “fit;” families on an equally fuzzy concept called “value.” Right now, neither the schools nor the students know until it is too late if they made the right choice. In an age when we are flooded with information, the process of picking a college seems to be getting more complicated, not easier.