The Full Story on Admissions

Credit: (Reprint)

Last week, many top colleges and universities were celebrating their successes in admissions during the pandemic. The Washington Post noted that Harvard University saw applications rise by 42 percent, while the University of Virginia was up 15 percent. The Post credited the fact that many of these colleges were -- for the first time -- test-optional this year, meaning students didn't need to submit SAT or ACT scores. The headline: "Applications Surge After Big-Name Colleges Halt SAT and ACT Testing Rules."

In the West, the headline in the Los Angeles Times was "UC’s Record-Smashing Applications Put Long-Held Diversity Goals Within Reach." The story detailed the University of California's systemwide increase of 16 percent in applications. But it noted the Black applicants increased by 48 percent at both Berkeley and UCLA. Latinx applicants increased by 33 percent at UCLA and 36 percent at Berkeley. The University of California is test blind this year, meaning that it won't look at test scores in admissions.

Both articles are entirely accurate about what is happening in the top sector of admissions. But both give a minimal mention to other realities this year.

Many colleges outside the top ones -- public and private alike -- are not having a good year in admissions. This appears to be especially the case in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest.

Jim Malatras, the chancellor of State University of New York system, wrote a column published in Empire Report in which he said that the SUNY system had seen an application decline this year of "20 percent, one of the largest annual decreases in the system’s 73-year history."

And SUNY itself demonstrates the difficulty of coming up with trends this year. Its campus at Binghamton is up 2 percent in applications. Generally, SUNY's university center campuses (at Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo and Stony Brook) operate in a different world from the rest of the system.

What's going on this year?

  • Application increases at top colleges will not (by themselves) translate into more access to higher education. Most of these colleges are not growing. Plus, the increase in high school graduates this year is expected to be less than 1 percent. The increases in minority applications to Berkeley and UCLA may well result in more of those students getting in, but others will be rejected. But even a seemingly significant change in minority enrollments at these universities won't move the needle much nationally.

  • Yield will be very difficult for colleges to predict. With applications way up -- Colgate had a 102 percent increase in applications -- the formulas used by many colleges will not be something they can rely on. Some colleges plan to make more use of waiting lists.

  • Deadlines -- outside of top colleges -- are flexible. Some colleges are open about this, and others are not. But the reality is that for colleges that are seeking students, they are open to talking, even if they had a Jan. 15 deadline (and in all likelihood the Jan. 15 deadlines have vanished for most colleges).

Many colleges (outside the top ones) aren't talking about their admissions year in public. But some are.

What are they saying? It's not desperation. But rather a spirit of looking for positive news amid the chaos.

Jeffrey D. Gant, vice president for enrollment management at SUNY New Paltz, points to a 4.1 percent increase in admitted students and a 5 percent increase in deposits compared to last year. But overall, applications are down 14 percent.

Gant said via email that the decrease was "a function of the many financial, social, health and educational challenges that amount to the hefty toll the pandemic has taken on all students."

"The fact that we’re experiencing this increase in admitted students is a testament to our ability to find right-fit students who connect with the mission and culture of SUNY New Paltz," he said.

The university has "worked tirelessly to get acceptance letters in the hands of qualified students as quickly as possible this year," he said. "These students are weighing their options under the difficult circumstances of the pandemic, and we want to be a partner to them in that decision-making process."

He added, "Like many institutions across the nation, we pivoted early to facilitate online and virtual recruitment opportunities for students and families. We have also offered space-limited and socially distanced in-person tours, which follow SUNY and the college’s strict COVID-19 safety protocols. We’ve heard from students and families that they are grateful to be able to experience our campus in-person at a time when so many other institutions have declined or are unable to offer such an option."

At SUNY Oneonta, Kim MacLeod, a spokeswoman, said that application numbers are "in line with what our sister SUNY campuses are experiencing. We anticipate a long cycle of application review moving into the spring."

MacLeod said the campus was engaged in a series of activities:

  • A "renewed focus" on personalized engagement with potential students.