Wild admissions ride: What 2020-21 may mean for fall

A chaotic application cycle, punctuated by pandemic changes, led to some unique solutions that may remain in place heading into 2021-22.
By: | May 10, 2021
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What occurred during this year’s admissions cycle was almost impossible to predict.

Pandemic fallout, steep declines in first-year student enrollment and a lack of face-to-face time with prospective students led to unprecedented uncertainty that had higher education leaders nail biting from October through April. Some still are.

This perfect storm pushed colleges and universities to seek out new solutions, to surge into virtual spaces, to lessen the importance of standardized test scores and to offer loads of incentives to pique student interest.

For top tier and big brand public institutions, the results were quite positive. Applications rolled in. Harvard University received more than 57,000 and had to push back its deadline. MIT saw a 66% year-over-year jump in those who applied. New York University reported topping 100,000.

And yet, many smaller institutions were forced to wait anxiously. Scores of hopeful students with impeccable resumes were denied or put on waitlists. At Harvard, Columbia and Princeton, the impacts were severe. Less than 4% of students were sent acceptance letters.

It all added up to one long, strange trip that is still ebbing and flowing heading into 2021-22.

“Many institutions are making announcements about fall being ‘back to normal’, but there remain a lot of unanswered questions,” says Jonathan Wehner, Vice President and Dean of Admissions at Cleveland State University. “I’m concerned about our ability to meet student expectations. I’ve seen research that suggests that what students have missed may have less to do with the modality of course delivery than with social interactions. Are colleges/universities going to be able to deliver the ‘student life’ experience students want so desperately?”

What the fall looks like will be anyone’s guess. When it comes to enrollment, it is likely that the elites will continue to thrive, while those in the tiers below will continue to experience challenges. The questions are many. Will the mass rejections change how future students apply to schools? Will admissions strategies employed this year be utilized again? Will outreach be different as institutions begin to open up?

“The questions for our next recruitment cycle will be: How much will be in person? How much will be virtual? Will it all be hybrid?” said Drew Carter, Associate Director of Admissions at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. “At this point, nobody really knows. Will we be able to have events on campus with crowds? Will we be able to travel? Will high schools let you in to talk to the kids? … There’s a challenge there too because every admissions office has created this incredible amount of virtual programming. Most of that is probably not going to go away.”

Changing the script

The lessons that Holy Cross and others learned over the past year likely will shape at least part of their admissions strategies for 2021-22. For Carter and his team, that may mean another dose of conducting interviews with students in their homes and offering tips to demystify the application process.

Though it will be a bonus to get prospective students back on campus for tours and meetings, Carter says the new way of connecting with them might be here to stay. For one, it gives Holy Cross a better window into students responding more naturally in their own environments. It also offers a way to reach the unreachable and is far less costly.

“No college isn’t going to be thinking about budget next year,” he says. “It is going to be under close inspection as we walk that balance between virtual and in person recruitment efforts. Is it worth it to spend the money to go to that state across the country to visit some high schools when there’s a virtual replacement?”

The hybrid model seems a strong possibility for another reason. Take any small to midsize school, especially private nonprofits that only have had a regional reach in the past. Virtual recruiting has opened huge potential to increase pipelines to those in far-away states and rural locales.

The numbers bear that out. Even MIT, which annually receives a robust number of applications, garnered more than 33,000 for the Class of 2025, which it credits in part to being able to extend its reach through online channels.

More targeted outreach approaches

If the elites and big-brand publics are employing virtual strategies, how can the others remain competitive? Incentives and savvy marketing offer some hope.

Colleges found success in 2020-21 by pitching flexible academic offerings, enhanced career pathways, leans to research and technology, and sustainability on campus. Most were quick to note their stances on topics that resonate with students, such as diversity, equity and inclusion and social justice.

“We have been intentional about sharing the rich tradition and legacy of Spelman, while also highlighting our ability to produce the next generation of leaders in a tech-forward society,” said Chelsea Holley, interim director of admissions at Spelman College, which broke a record for applications with more than 11,000.

Cleveland State, seeking to boost enrollment numbers by 4,500 by 2025, launched a new initiative that will consolidate some colleges, increase research and bring more students on campus. It also put out a unique incentives for new students: a 2-for-1 tuition deal (essentially one free semester after achievement in the first).

“As COVID was starting to hit, we heard students were going to defer,” Wehner said. “We said, what can we do to try to incentivize these students to get to started? We’ve heard of some financial aid incentives, but we haven’t heard of anyone doing it quite the way that we’re doing it – tying it to that success in a student’s first semester.”

Reaching students where they are – in digital spaces – has become a popular and smart strategy.

“When COVID hit, it threw a five-year accelerant on virtual platforms and virtual connections,” says Casey Welch, co-founder and COO of Tallo, a LinkedIn-style platform for students that showcases their work and helps them network with colleges. “Virtual recruiting is a must have for colleges to continue to get the numbers and type of talent they want. There are so many universities that aren’t Florida State or Miami. It puts them on more of a level playing field. [Recruiters] have to make sure it is a fundamental part of the strategy going forward.”

The true tests for recruiting

Another increasingly popular strategy – test-optional score inclusion – took off after the pandemic hit. More than 1,600 colleges and universities now have obliged, some permanently, some temporarily.

“Rochester was test optional before it was cool, but others who only adapted because of the pandemic will continue more flexible policies,” said Robert Alexander, Dean of Admissions, Financial Aid, and Enrollment Management at the University of Rochester. “I hope that change re-norms what was an overreliance on a single marker for college readiness.”

Alexander and his team made it clear to applicants (and his staff) to not focus on one variable during the application process. Understanding the difficulties of the pandemic, Rochester and other institutions have found success by taking a more receptive approach with students and families.

“We are very concerned about some of the students with the least resources and the least access to higher ed to begin with, now exacerbated by reduced guidance counseling and increased family responsibilities – whether that’s caring for younger siblings while parents are doing essential work, or students who themselves are working,” Alexander says. “Our message to students is, tell us those stories and what you’re learning from that because that could be a much more powerful lesson than anything that we could get looking at your standardized test scores.”

The elimination of test scores and the use of the Common App may have opened up opportunities for students. But they do present some challenges for admissions leaders.

“I think there’s more nuance to the conversation than ‘standardized testing is bad,’ ” Wehner says. “Even accounting for the ways in which standardized testing can be and is problematic, sometimes it served a purpose. At CSU, standardized testing played an important role in freshmen placement. I want to make sure that we get students into appropriate math and English courses. With only about half of our applicants submitting test scores, we’ve lost what was an imperfect but important tool in placement.”

And with more students applying to top-tier schools, some smaller institutions saw far fewer applications early on.

“Medium selectivity or non-selectives are worried about that piece of the puzzle,” Melissa Meyer, Director of Integrated Marketing for Intersect at Hobson’s, told University Business in late February. “When we look at it holistically, it’s going to be more important than ever that institutions double down in yield as much as they can to make sure that they come out on top on the back end. When they look at yield, it’s going to be important that they emphasize cost, location and majors in those communications. When they look at majors, they should focus on what their differentiators are. The top three things that students are searching for are cost, location and majors.”

Location might be the one variable that will adjust slightly as colleges and universities begin to reopen. Another might be how admissions teams set their strategies for the next cycle that might look different from 2020-21.

“All of us are anxiously awaiting reconnecting with other human beings in person,” Alexander says. “While we’re eager to interact with prospective and current students in person, I hope that we will create a ‘new normal’ – not revert back to our old ways but intentionally determine how virtual engagement tools can improve access for students we wouldn’t usually see in person, and enhance opportunities for faculty, staff, current and prospective students to connect with one another no matter where we are located.”


By the numbers

49,555: Applications received by Duke University, nearly 10,000 more than for 2020-21.

39,342: First-year applications received at Syracuse University, a new record and a 24% increase over the previous year

10,000: Early-decision applications to Harvard University. Less than 8% were accepted

6,892: Acceptances (13%) at Emory University from a pool of more than 33,000 applications

8,370: Additional applications received this year by Northwestern University for the Class of 2025 over Class of 2024 numbers. More than 47,600 first-year students applied overall

51%: Percentage increase in applications received this year by Columbia University

47%: Students who applied test-optional at the University of Rochester from early numbers. It was 17% during the previous cycle

41%: Increase in applications to U.S. institutions from students in Brazil, according to Common App. Pakistan was next at +37%. China dropped 18%

18.1%: Early-decision acceptance rate at Vanderbilt University.

Going low

Inundated with applications (because of a combination of factors including prestige, the ease of Common App and test-optional initiatives put in place by institutions), top colleges and universities have had the luxury of turning away even the best students. Here are some astonishingly low acceptance rates for 2021-22:

Harvard 3.43%

Columbia 3.6%

Princeton 3.98%

MIT 4%

Yale 4.62%

Penn: 5.68

Vanderbilt 6.7%

Northwestern 6.8%

Swarthmore 7%

Colby College 8%