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Americans apply to so many schools that it’s messing up college admissions

Reuters/Lisi Niesner
The test is the easy part
By Max Nisen
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Easier application due to the Common App and an overall digital shift is driving massive growth in applications numbers, far outstripping the increase in actual students. A research report from Moody’s notes that applications have jumped by 70% from 2004 to 2013. There’s only been a 5% increase in high school graduates:

Common Application launched 35 years ago, with 15 schools and an aim to standardize the admissions process. Its membership has expanded dramatically, it has gone online, and made applying to multiple colleges dramatically easier. Its paper app was retired entirely last year. Here’s the growth in its member institutions:

It is removing its essay requirement for the next cycle, according to a Moody’s research report. Many schools append extra essays, but not all, and this should further increase applications and members schools according to analyst Michael Osborn.

The rise in application has been encouraged by schools trying to get better and more diverse classes, and has been helpful in lowering barriers to entry. But it’s backfiring on many.

It’s reached a point where schools have a really hard time determining how many might actually enroll. As more students apply, selectivity means less, and qualified students might miss out on a school they very much want to attend.

According to the report, almost a fifth of colleges had yield rates under 20%, meaning that less than 20% of accepted students attend. Just 2% of institutions had those yield rates in 2003:

It’s harder to project how many students might attend, to have a full entering class, to budget effectively, and to keep tuition income steady in a time when many schools are under financial pressure.

The profusion of applications is in part due to a feedback loop between more informed and price-sensitive students, and more accommodating schools. It’s easier to apply to many schools, and pick the best deal. So it’s leading to heavy discounts, schools offer more financial aid and scholarships in order to attract desirable students.

That’s great if it lowers costs for those that need it. But it can create artificial selectivity, gets qualified students rejected, and it could be inflating the sticker price of college overall. It may provide an advantage to the comparatively well off, who can afford application fees, and who have a tendency to apply to many more schools (pdf) in the first place as they’re more informed about the benefits of reaching for elite schools and potential price spreads.

There’s plenty of benefit to a standardized, easier application process. But sheer volume is finally catching up with admissions departments.

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