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?
- More students apply early to a dream school and application volumes soar.
- Selectivity increases as admit rates plunge, especially when these schools don’t materially increase the number of students admitted early.
- Virtual recruitment events proved to be highly successful, with top schools reporting greater engagement with prospective students than ever before.
- 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.
- All of the above.
*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.
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.