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Class of 2025 – The Big Squeeze

Another year for the record books, as top colleges and universities see their overall application volumes soar in this most unprecedented cycle. Among the eye-popping statistics we’ve seen, NYU tops 100,000 applications, Harvard’s pool grows by 57 percent, and Colgate receives double the number of applications as compared to last year.

TEST-OPTIONAL = DRIVING FORCE

This year’s across-the-board test-optional admissions policies at top colleges are driving the increased volume, but so is nervousness about getting in. After record early admission application growth in the fall that saw greater numbers of students deferred or denied than in previous years (80 percent of Harvard’s early applicants were deferred, for instance), students naturally sought to maximize their regular decision admissions prospects by casting as wide a net as possible. Although we haven’t seen any data from the Common Application on the average number of applications submitted per student, we’d wager that its higher than last year given the heightened uncertainty.

So now what happens? Will anyone get in? Is it even physically possible to read all those applications in the time allotted?

Admissions staffs will surely be working overtime, hiring additional outside readers to get through the volume, and looking for systematic ways to speed-read their way through their applicant pools to figure out who’s a viable candidate and who’s not. Some have even pushed back their notification dates. We know so far that Harvard, Penn, and Princeton will release decisions in early April, giving themselves one additional week to complete the process.

EYE-CATCHING DATA

Most likely, as admissions readers first glance through files, they’ll be looking for the following:

  • Markers of academic achievement: grades, rigor of program, and any standardized testing that students share (SAT, ACT, subject tests, and APs)
  • High-level academic awards and recognition
  • Evidence of impact and distinction beyond the classroom
  • Hooks – legacies, underrepresented students, first generation to college, low income (most recruited athletes are admitted in the early process)
  • Demonstrated interest – especially at colleges where yield is more variable

If you have them, you advance. If not, you don’t.

It was interesting to note that despite its test-optional admissions policy this year, Georgetown released data on its early admissions cycle noting that only 7.34 percent of applicants who did not submit standardized test scores were actually admitted. They also made note of the average test scores of those who were admitted—middle 50th percentile on the ACT between 33-35 and for SATs, 720-750 (reading) and 730-90 (math)—continuing to reinforce the importance that Georgetown places on strong scores.

DATA IS KING

Another way that admissions officers will look to make sense of these large applicant pools is to review students in their school groups. If 20 students applied to Colby from a single high school or 100 students applied to NYU from the same school, it’s a sure bet that applicant data will be sorted in descending GPA order (remember, applicants were asked to self-report GPA on their Common Application). Readers will focus attention on the students at the top of the pack in each high school – those students whom they see as most likely to be admitted — and only have time for a cursory peak at the others.

No doubt about it. To make sense of this record-breaking volume of applicants, colleges and universities will have to be more objective and data-driven in their decision making. You simply can’t hire enough people to read all those applications and schedule enough hours of committee meetings on Zoom to talk about each one.

With artificial intelligence finishing our sentences, detecting tumors more accurately than doctors, screening resumes at large corporations, populating our playlists, and driving our cars, can AI-driven changes to the selection process at top schools be far behind?

There’s nothing artificial about Top Tier’s intelligence as we strive to make the admissions process less confusing for families and help students create an action-based roadmap to college success. Learn more about our work here.

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Class of 2025 Early Admissions Trends

It’s here! What you’ve all been waiting for, Top Tier’s annual deep dive analysis into this year’s early admissions round. Let’s get started…

Looking at the chart below, which of the following can you infer?

  1. More students apply early to a dream school and application volumes soar.
  2. Selectivity increases as admit rates plunge, especially when these schools don’t materially increase the number of students admitted early.
  3. Virtual recruitment events proved to be highly successful, with top schools reporting greater engagement with prospective students than ever before.
  4. An even more challenging RD round is in store for everyone, the result of continued increases in application volume and the need to admit fewer students to create space for students who took gap years and to carefully manage admit rates and yield.
  5. All of the above.
Early Application Volume - Class of 2025 vs 2024

*UC = University of California system. Although the UCs don’t have an early program, growth in their 2025 application volume is included for comparative purposes.

ALL OF THE ABOVE

If you chose “5”, you’re right. The robust growth in applications to top private and public universities around the country in the early round shattered records. Driving the growth in application volume: COVID-19. Just like every other aspect of our lives, the pandemic upended application projections and yield models.

Early in November, the first data released by the Common Application pointed to a 7 percent drop in the number of low-income students along with those who are the first in their families to attend college and a decrease in applications at the less selective public and private universities that draw a greater proportion of disadvantaged students.

These are important data points that underscore inequities in access to education but don’t tell the entire story.

CLARITY IN COLLEGE ADMISSIONS

Among the top private universities and public universities that have shared their early data, a clearer picture emerges. Applications have soared at selective and well-resourced universities. Fueling the growth are likely at least three factors: 1) pandemic-era test optional admissions policies at every top college and university in the country; 2) strong need-based and merit aid programs that make top public and private universities even more appealing in this time of significant economic disruption; and 3) aggressive virtual recruitment efforts on behalf of top schools to reach prospective applicants everywhere.

A note about virtual recruitment caught our eye. Yale reports that over 47,000 prospective students registered for joint virtual events featuring Yale, as compared to only 8,500 in 2019.

Without a doubt, testing has always been a real or perceived barrier to entry at the nation’s top schools. As colleges have shared details about who they admitted in the early rounds, we can see that in this new, test-optional admissions environment colleges pushed aggressively to increase the diversity of their early cohort (a typically non-diverse group of students). Some data points that underscore this push:

  • At Brown, 48 percent of early admits are students of color – an 8 percent increase from last year. The applicant pool saw record numbers of first-generation students and low-income students.
  • Dartmouth notes that almost 26 percent of accepted students are from low-income household. 36 percent of accepted students are Black, Indigenous, or people of color – a historic high.
  • The numbers of admitted students who are Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Asian American have all increased at Georgetown in this early cycle.
  • The percentage of first-generation college students admitted to Harvard increased nearly 7 percentage points to 17 percent in this cycle. Admitted students identifying as African American increased 4 percentage points to 16.6 percent.

NOW WHAT HAPPENS?

Short term, top colleges will need to contend with bloated applicant pools and fewer spots than normally anticipated at this time of year, the result of record numbers of students in the Class of 2024 who postponed their matriculation to the fall of 2021.

One admissions dean offers insight into the challenges that lie ahead. As reported in The Hoya, as of Dec. 16, Georgetown had already received approximately 20,000 applications for the Class of 2025, putting the university on track to receive a record-breaking number of total undergraduate applications, according to Dean of Admissions Charlie Deacon. The squeeze is on as his office must take into account spots reserved for students who chose to defer matriculation. Approximately 115 students who were admitted as part of the Class of 2024 decided to defer enrollment until fall 2021. 

Many other deans are mum on this topic, but it’s likely that each one of them is trying to figure out just how to best shoehorn the 2024 gap year students into the Class of 2025.

Longer term, will test-optional admissions policies remain in place at top colleges post-pandemic? That’s clearly a critical question being discussed this winter by university leaders across the country, so look for new policies to be announced this spring.

Several top universities began to shift their testing policies pre-pandemic. MIT, CalTech, and Yale, for instance, no longer considered SAT subject tests. Last May, the Board of Regents of the University of California extended the test-optional policy through 2022. In addition, the entire UC system suspended the standardized test requirement for in-state applicants in fall 2023 and fall 2024, and the ACT or SAT test requirement will be eliminated beginning in 2025 if those tests are not replaced by a new test the system is considering developing.

GENIE IN A BOTTLE

Whether your metaphor of choice runs to toothpaste in a tube or a genie in a bottle, having sampled test optional admissions policies and seeing the opportunity to increase both the size and diversity of the applicant pool, there’s likely no incentive for colleges and universities to turn back at this point. As always, we’ll share more insights as more data emerge in this most unprecedented of admissions seasons.

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Class of 2025 Admissions Trends Part I: Canaries in the Coal Mine?

Next month, as colleges finalize and release decisions on their early action and early decision applicants, we’ll have our first indication of the kinds of decisions colleges have begun to make as they build a base for their first-year class. But, while we wait, let’s look at some of the information that has been made public.

CLASS OF 2025 ADMISSIONS TRENDS THUS FAR

Here’s what we know…

UVA has received a record number of early decision and early action applications, as reported in the Cavalier Daily. Compared to last year at this time, early decision applications increased by 35 percent (761 more applications) and early action applications by 15 percent (3,762 more applications), respectively. Although the percentage increase in early decision applications is eye-popping, the actual number is less so. In-state students comprise a majority of ED applicants (54 percent to 46 percent) but out-of-state students, looking to leverage the ability to apply early action to UVA along with an early application to a top private college, clearly dominate the early action pool, comprising 72 percent of applicants to this program.

UNC, another top public university, saw its early action applications grow by 10 percent to just under 32,000 applicants. The UNC admissions blog post is short on details about applicant demographics, but we suspect that out-of-state students who also applied to top private universities comprise a healthy chunk of that increase using UNC as a back-up since it is non-binding.

University of Georgia, on its admissions blog, notes nearly 21,000 early applications, a healthy 27 percent increase. Early indicators based on data on students who have started their UGA RD applications lead them to expect a larger than usual RD pool.

The data from these three top public flagship universities suggest some other possible trends for the year. First, the economic hit that so many families have taken these last nine months, especially with record-high job losses and unemployment, likely has more students looking to stay in-state or closer to home rather than to seek private or public schools out of state. With new test-optional policies, the flagships are drawing more applicants from both in-state and regionally who, in other years, may not have been competitive in these pools. Finally, travel restrictions that have limited students’ abilities to visit campuses beyond their region —potentially along with a family’s desire to keep students closer to home—may also be driving more applicants to a state’s flagship campus.

WHAT’S HAPPENING AT TOP PRIVATE UNIVERSITIES?

This year, 5,540 students applied to Brown as early decision candidates, the largest early pool in the university’s history and a 22 percent increase over last year’s early applicant pool. Brown’s news release cites the diversity of the applicant pool with record numbers of first-generation college students, students from low-income families and students of color. In total, 885 students were admitted early to Brown, making for a 16 percent admit rate in this cycle. Of the admitted group, 45 came to Brown through the Questbridge program. Within the cohort admitted, 16 percent of students will be first in their family to attend college. Within the cohort, 48 percent are students of color, defined as those who self-identify as Black, Latinx, Native American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, or Asian — an 8 percent increase from last year.

Cornell University has received over 9,000 applications for early decision, an increase of 36 percent over last year’s ED pool of 6,615 students. An e-newsletter from the Admissions Office shared the details with applicants, along with details about the early decision notification date (December 17 at 7pm EST).

Dartmouth admitted 566 students from its largest-ever early decision pool. This year, the early pool grew by 29 percent to 2,664 applicants, leading the admit rate to decline by five percentage points to 21 percent. As noted in an article in the student paper, “a record-high percentage of accepted early decision students come from diverse racial, socioeconomic and international backgrounds, while recruited athletes comprise an unusually low portion of the cohort…. Of the 566 admits, 36% are Black, Indigenous or people of color, 16% are first-generation and 14% live outside of the U.S. — all early decision records…[additionally] a record 26% come from low-income families, and 18% of the early decision admits are projected to be eligible for Pell Grants.”

We’ve learned that Duke University has alerted its alumni in an email that over 5,000 early decision applications have been received, a record number and almost 20 percent more than last year. The note also points out that the 174 students admitted last year and currently on a gap year will affect the numbers of students admitted this year.

A record number of students made the decision that Johns Hopkins is their first-choice college, with an 11 percent increase in early applications from last year. Although the blog didn’t note the number of applications received in this year’s ED1 group, doing the math, we projected that they received 2,663 applications. With an ED2 round yet to come, we’ll watch for final early numbers from JHU in the early winter.

U Penn accepted a record-low 15 percent of early decision applicants to the Class of 2025, down significantly from last year’s nearly 20 percent early decision admit rate. Driving the increased selectivity was another hefty increase in applications. This year, Penn received 7,032 applicants for early decision, a 23 percent increase from last year’s 6,453 applicants. The Daily Pennsylvanian story notes that about 38 percent of total early decision applicants chose not to include standardized testing as part of their application and of those admitted, 24% did not include test scores. Penn’s Vice Dean and Director of Admissions John McLaughlin added that the increase in applicants may in part be attributed to this year’s test-optional policy. (emphasis added).

Yale’s early action applicant pool swelled by 38%, to a record high 7,939. The number of students admitted – 837 – corresponds to a 10.5 percent acceptance rate for early action, a significant decrease from the rates for the previous few classes. Of the remaining applicants, 50 percent were deferred to the Regular Decision pool and 38 percent were denied admission. Yale’s news story also highlights the university’s partnership with Questbridge – a national non-profit organization that matches low-income students with over 40 top colleges. This year, 72 Questbridge students were among those admitted early.

COMMON APPLICATION DATA

As reported by Inside Higher Ed earlier in November, the Common Application received 8 percent fewer applications through November 2 as compared to the same time last year. Additionally, 60 percent of the Common App’s 921 member schools reported application declines. Our guess is that those declines are likely in smaller and less selective institutions, especially those with binding admissions processes. The article also notes that Common App data suggest the declines are more acute among first generation and low-income college students. Given the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color and low income communities, these are the very students who, when schools shut down, lacked access to knowledgeable teachers, mentors, and counselors to help them prepare to apply in the early round. This means overall, the applicant pool at top colleges is likely to be less diverse than usual.

We also learn that colleges not requiring test scores “experienced stronger first-year application volume through November 2.” Interestingly, a related article notes that Florida’s public universities which require the SAT or ACT are experiencing a decline of up to 50 percent in applications. As of November 9, all 12 universities in the State University System of Florida still required the SAT or ACT, despite the challenges facing students with closed test centers and canceled tests.

STAY TUNED

Watch our blog for more data as results come into focus for the early decision and early action rounds. Like just about everything else in 2020, we can predict there will be much that is unprecedented.

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Do College Rankings Really Matter?

In September, U.S. News & World Report, the leading authority in college rankings, announced the 2021 U.S. News Best Colleges list. For the 10th straight year, Princeton University has earned the #1 spot, followed by Harvard University and Columbia University. Likewise, on the list of National Liberal Arts Colleges, Williams College has maintained its #1 position, with Amherst College and Swarthmore College coming in at #2 and #3, respectively. Now that prospective students are unable to attend traditional on-campus info sessions and campus tours, rankings carry extra weight as students turn to “expert data” to create their college lists.

HOW MUCH COLLEGE RANKINGS MATTER

This year more than ever, we have been asked how much college rankings really matter. And if, in the past, these rankings have been directly correlated with standardized test scores of accepted students, what are the new metrics that have been used to determine this year’s list as colleges go test-optional? How reliable are these methodologies?

In response to the pandemic’s ongoing disruptions and ripple effect on college admissions, this year’s US News rankings include three new topics: student debt, social mobility, and test-blind admissions policies. For the first time, they have also ranked schools that don’t use the SAT or ACT for the purpose of admissions.

U.S. News has published the updated breakdown of key data used to determine overall rank. The six factors are weighted as follows:

Outcomes (40%, previously 35%)

Its success at retaining and graduating students within 150% of normal time (six years). We approach outcomes from angles of graduation and retention (22%), graduation rate performance (8%), social mobility (5%) and, new this year, graduate indebtedness (5%).

Faculty Resources (20%)

U.S. News uses five factors from the 2019-2020 academic year to assess a school’s commitment to instruction: class size (8%), faculty salary (7%), faculty with the highest degree in their fields (3%), student-faculty ratio (1%) and proportion of faculty who are full time (1%).

Expert Opinion (20%)

Each year, top academics – presidents, provosts and deans of admissions – rate the academic quality of peer institutions with which they are familiar on a scale of 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). We take a two-year weighted average of the ratings. The 2021 Best Colleges ranking factors in scores from both 2020 and 2019.

Financial resources (10%)

This is determined based on average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditures in the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years.

Student Excellence (7%, previously 10%)

The ACT/SAT scores and high school class rank of accepted students.

Alumni giving (3%, previously 5%)

The average percentage of living alumni with bachelor’s degrees who gave to their school during 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.

While this updated breakdown has reduced the weight given to SAT and ACT scores, high school class standing, and alumni donations in response to the shifting admissions landscape, these factors still matter and are a significant part of the raw material that informs the final list. Furthermore, as noted on their website, the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic means that the “current” policies and procedures collected in spring 2020 may have changed since the rankings were determined.

CHANGES IN COLLEGE RANKINGS –BUT NOT ENOUGH

H. Holden Thorp, the Editor-in-Chief of Science, former provost of Washington University in St. Louis, and former chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has publicly called for the suspension of college rankings during this time of crisis. In his article, published in May, he makes his case clear:

“A truly transformative move in this moment of crisis would be to suspend testing requirements and college rankings. This is not a time for undergraduate institutions to be using precious resources to chase these numbers. Rather, they need to support struggling students and other members of the academic community so that education can resume this fall in a manner that is fair to all. Some schools are already making test scores optional for the time being, and hopefully that requirement will never return. Ranking colleges and universities changed higher education, mostly for the worse. Now is the time for institutions to suspend those rankings and, when the crisis is over, bring them back in a more progressive form.”

– H. Holden Thorp, the Editor-in-Chief of Science

Other college rankings, such as the Washington Monthly’s 2020 rankings, have responded to this social pressure. Although they still published their rankings in August, they have made an effort to emphasize diversity and social consciousness in their calculations and approach. As they explain, “It’s our answer to U.S. News & World Report, which relies on crude and easily manipulated measures of wealth, exclusivity, and prestige.” To calculate a college’s commitment to diversity, for example, they use IPEDS data “to measure the percentage of students at each institution receiving Pell Grants, and College Scorecard data to measure the percentage of first-generation students at each school.” For the first time, they have also listed the schools that make sure majors popular with Black students (social work, criminal justice, and sociology) lead to well-paying jobs. See that list here.

Money’s annual Best Colleges for Your Money ranking, published in August, used a methodology based on 27 factors in three categories: Quality of education (30% of weighting), Affordability (40% of weighting), and Outcomes (30% of weighting). In response to the economic outlook this year, they increased the emphasis on affordability. They also added two new net price figures to “capture affordability for students from middle-income backgrounds alongside our existing measure of net price for low-income students.”

Finally, this year’s Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education 2021 rankings consider similar metrics to assess colleges in four areas: Outcomes (salary graduates earn, debt burden they accrue), Resources (the spending schools put into instruction and student services), Engagement (student survey), and Environment (diversity of the community). It is critical to note, however, that, due to the pandemic and shutdown of college campuses, the student survey (20% of the ranking) was canceled for this year. As such, the WSJ/THE rankings use the scores obtained by institutions last year.

THE BOTTOM LINE

In many ways, these rankings will only continue to exasperate the inequities in higher education, made more acute by the ongoing pandemic. While the ranking organizations have made some efforts to add transparency to their process, the data is simply not consistent or dependable at this stage, and a considerable amount of data this year was re-used from the 2019 lists, which did not take into account new admissions procedures or the reality of campus life during COVID-19. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the rankings are largely the same as years past. While some of the metrics offered by these publications can be useful, they should be consulted with care and some degree of skepticism. For personalized guidance and a winning application strategy that takes into account the ever-shifting landscape in real time, contact us today about our Private Counseling Program or Application Boot Camp.

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Why Early Decision Still Makes Sense for Many Students

Post by: Dr. Michele Hernandez

We’ve had vigorous debates on this blog and with students and parents about the merits of early decision. As a brief primer, both early action and early decision have early November deadlines, but early action is NON binding (you do not have to say “yes”) while early decision is binding (you have to say “yes” and withdraw any other applications). The confusing thing is that HarvardYale, and Stanford have a “single choice/restrictive” early action policy (non-binding but you can only apply to state schools or international schools as back up) while the other five Ivies all have normal early decision. Princeton for this cycle is not doing any early round at all which throws a wrench into the scene.

STATISTICS TELL THE STORY

As you can see from the tables below, early decision acceptance rates are 3 to 4 times higher than regular only acceptance rates while early action acceptance rates are higher, but not by as big a margin with the exception of MIT. The one thing that is indisputable is that regular only admittance rates are super low from 2-3% at Stanford (which didn’t give out exact numbers from this cycle so we are guesstimating) and Harvard to a “high” of 6-7%. Looking at just the numbers, there is a clear advantage to applying early action/early decision at every school. But as many perceptive readers of past posts pointed out, the difference is not quite as sharp because legacies and recruited athletes tend to get accepted in the early decision round so while it may look like Dartmouth takes 26% of ALL early applicants, it is going to be less than that for “non-hooked” applicants. As I will illustrate below, even so, it is worth it to apply early decision to increase your odds. Some argue that early decision can lock you into a financial bind as you cannot compare financial aid packages so is “only for the wealthy.” That is not true because the Ivies bend over backwards to give generous aid packages once they commit to a student and in the worst case scenario, you can be released from the early decision agreement if after you appeal your financial aid award, you still cannot afford it.

REASONS EARLY DECISION STILL MAKES SENSE

  1. Even taking into account legacies and recruited athletes, the acceptance rate is still higher than regular round.
  2. There are MANY fewer applicants in the early round (look at the table below – sometimes 8-10 times fewer in early!) which means your application, essays, teacher recs and materials are read much more carefully and typically by admissions officers rather than outside readers.
  3. Not only are there fewer applicants in early, but with legacies and athletes who tend to be in the lower side academically, truly strong applicants who are academic superstars shine brighter in the early decision round than in the regular round. To say it another way, the regular round is much more competitive with many of the nation’s top students waiting until regular round. The early round overall is weaker because of the recruited athletes and legacies and “reach” applicants.
  4. Applying early decision tells the college that you picked them first – and you love their school and are willing to commit. That means for a student who might be “on the border,” often admissions officers will take that student in early but not in regular. This is demonstrated interest on steroids.
  5. What about getting deferred? Think of it this way, if you were deferred in the early round, you would have been rejected in the regular round, so nothing lost there. Plus, deferred students have a chance to send an update with new grades, awards, scores, etc… and roughly 5-15% of deferred kids (depending on the school) will be accepted during the regular round. The advantage is that the college knows it is your top choice, signaled by the original ED choice.
  6. Finally, with COVID still in the picture, many schools (especially small liberal arts schools) have lost a ton of tuition dollars from last year plus have many added expenses to develop a Coronavirus plan (paying for HEPA filters, more ventilation, etc…). That means that students who don’t need financial aid AND who apply ED will have higher admissions odds this year.
  7. Related to the above, we predict that many liberal arts colleges along with top universities will admit a higher percentage of the class in the ED round to lock in tuition paying students.

MAGIC WANDS

As I’ve argued before, if I could wave my magic wand, I would force all the top colleges to have two rounds of early decision (I and II) but 1- limit the number to perhaps only 30-35% of the total class rather than 50% as U Penn takes now for example) and 2- provide super generous financial aid/grants to students. That way colleges could still reserve 60-70% of the spots for regular round but still give students two rounds to indicate a true first choice. I would eliminate single choice early action so HYPS don’t artificially elevate themselves over the other schools simply based on policy. In a typical year, 20,000 to 25,000 students are deferred or rejected from HYPS, freak out, and then apply to 20-30 schools in regular round. That is why the system is flooded with a ridiculous number of applicants in regular round. Changing the system would reduce that number dramatically. But no school wants to act in a vacuum – they need to join hands and take the plunge all at once to insert some measure of sanity into the process.

IVY LEAGUE — CLASS OF 2024

MIT AND STANFORD — CLASS OF 2024