Admissions Trends Overview, 2012: Seven Key Words

October 1, 2012

by Howard and Matthew Greene

What’s likely to unfold during this year’s college admissions cycle?

Here are our seven favorite words to describe this year's trends, phenomena, and tendencies to anticipate. They all happen to end in “ty”, strangely enough…

Complexity, Uncertainty, Diversity, Generosity, Alacrity, Incredulity, and Perplexity.

Complexity

The admissions process has remained as complicated and difficult to navigate as ever. Despite, or perhaps in part due to the fact that the Common Application has been adopted by more of the selective colleges, including more public universities, application writing is as confusing as ever. Even for the Common App schools we see many colleges with a variety of supplements, some with additional essays, some without. There are arts and athletic and international supplements. Some colleges have their own forms, others take the Common App special supplements. An increasing number of high schools are filing their recommendation forms and reports online, but others are not. And then there is the Universal College Application. And the colleges that use only their own online applications. How about the College Board’s Score Choice program? Students must check each college’s policy as they submit score reports in order to abide by the individual college’s stance on this, even though the Common app, for example, asks that students report their highest section scores for the SAT or the ACT. Speaking of standardized testing, we still should note the gradual increase in schools adopting test optional admissions policies, though there are many variations of such programs. Some require interviews, research projects, or graded papers in place of testing; others look for a particular GPA or class rank (tough if you attend one of the many high schools that does not provide a rank or even decile). Students are also confused as to whether to take the SAT, ACT, and/or SAT Subject Tests. Which colleges require or recommend which, and in which combination? More students are taking SAT and ACT, as well as Subject Tests, to cover all their bases and to see which works better for them, leading to more prep time, more weekends given up, and more registration and reporting costs. Should we add mention of the financial aid application process, priority or preferred deadlines for scholarship consideration, or need-blind versus really need-blind and full-need funding? How about Early Action, Early Decision, Early Decision II, Early Notification, Rolling Admission, Restrictive Early Action, and Immediate Decision, among others? Folks, it’s not getting any easier for our students to apply to college.

Uncertainty

Due to forces we’re all aware of, including a rise in the high school graduating population, an increase in international applications, stronger student qualifications across a wide range of public and private high schools, and a search for (OK, even an obsession with) highly recognized selective private and public colleges, it has become harder to get into the more selective schools. More students are applying to more colleges, in part to try to counter the unpredictability (there’s another “ty” word) in the admissions process. Colleges are facing huge increases in application numbers, and in many cases reduced staff and budgets to manage the pool. With less time to meet students on the road or during on-campus interviews, and more apps to read, the admissions process has become less personalized in more instances. Thus there is a great deal of uncertainty: on the part of students, who don’t know where they will get in; and on the part of colleges, which don’t know which students are likely to attend if they are admitted. Enter the binding Early Decision programs and the rise in the use and length of Waiting Lists, among other enrollment management strategies.

Diversity

Colleges are still seeking a diverse applicant pool. Despite challenges to affirmative action, particularly a public university issue, we are still seeing colleges reaching out to underrepresented student populations, including ethnic and racial minorities, students from geographic regions that have not typically sent many applicants, and first-generation college attendees. The Center for Student Opportunity, for example, features a list of many colleges expanding their outreach efforts to bring students to campus for multicultural events and to educate students about what they have to offer in terms of programs and financial assistance (www.csopportunity.org). We are constantly encouraging students to look for a range of colleges, often out of their comfort zone, and not to let “sticker price” limit their applications.

Generosity

In addition to the need-based financial aid that the federal government, states, and colleges are putting on the table, often in the face of budget challenges and decreased legislative support, there is still an amazing amount of non-need-based aid awarded by colleges. This discounting can surprise, and sometimes unsettle, families, but it can also mean the difference between attending and not attending a particular college, or balancing out the total cost of attendance between public and private options. We encourage many students to build into their college list appropriate institutions that might offer them scholarships based on academic or other qualifications, and we don’t anticipate this trend slowing down too much this year. That is despite that fact that many colleges probably can’t afford to keep discounting this deeply for too much longer.

Alacrity

A word we wouldn’t encourage students to use in their college essays, but also one that captures how quickly and early the application process is starting for some students. By the first week of September this year, we have heard from three students who had received invitations to apply to Fordham University, the University of Denver, and Southern Methodist University via “priority” applications. These so-called “Snap apps” are becoming ubiquitous, and are adding to the confusion and, sometimes, cynicism (see incredulity, next) on the part of families. Websites and other guidelines don’t mention or spend much time discussing these strategies, and families (and counselors) are unsure as to whether they improve admissions odds, signal any higher chance for admission, or represent some new kind of admission plan. Do they conflict with Restrictive Early Action programs? So many students head into senior fall convinced they will (in fact, they must!) apply Early somewhere (they just have to figure out where). We spend a lot time counseling and reassuring students that there is a longer time frame for the admissions process which will serve many of them better. Nevertheless, the pressure is on to move the fall forward earlier than ever, and to make commitments when often students are far from ready to do so.

Incredulity

Do they really want me? Is this a scam? Is this college education really worth it? There is a rising sense of skepticism and disbelief on the part of students and parents who are not only mystified by such a complicated admission process and college landscape, but also wary of taking on too much debt, spending time applying to and visiting campuses where they don’t have much chance for admission, or studying for a four- (or six-) year degree that will not lead to gainful employment. Strong supporters of a liberal arts education, we do our best to make the case for a broad-based curriculum as the foundation for many careers, but given the economic downturn, many families are with good reason asking tough questions about the cost and trajectory of degree programs. With the addition of the net price calculators, colleges must be ready to answer those questions and provide real data, plans, financial aid counseling, and career services for prospective and current students.

Perplexity

Ultimately, some families are overwhelmed by the choices and challenges of today’s college admissions process. They will seek reassurance in one or more of the many rankings guides, looking for some quantitative measure to gauge the quality of the education they are considering. Or they will listen to the advice of a trusted friend, uncle, mentor, or neighbor who has something good to say about a particular school. Perhaps they will put most emphasis on the best deal they can put together, and not even apply to colleges that look too expensive. International candidates will seek shelter in a recognized name and location, rather than reaching out for great colleges and universities that have less of a presence in Europe, Asia, or South America. Social media influences, from Facebook to YouTube to Twitter, will shape opinions and preconceptions, in ways often beyond the control of the messaging intentions of the institution. Faced with such trends, the increasingly overburdened school counselor or college official will try to reduce families’ confusion. And when asked why things are this way, must say, “I really don’t know…”

A version of this article appeared in CollegeBound Newsletter, October, 2012

© Howard and Matthew Greene