Knowing the latest college admissions trends will ease your anxiety about the process. Let’s start with the good news: The odds for admission into a four-year college or university are good — seven out of every 10 seniors who apply get in, according to a recent report.

And the bad news? The competition for selective colleges is more intense than ever before.

In its 2015 State of College Admissions report, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) identified several reasons for the recent increase in college applications and consequently tougher competition to get into “brand name” colleges. The two biggest reasons are:

  • More students are graduating from high school.
    There are more high school students now than ever before due to the “baby boom echo,” i.e., all those children of all those baby boomers.
  • Students are applying to more schools.
    The ease of researching colleges and submitting applications online and of applying to multiple schools using the Common Application has contributed to this phenomenon.

Touring a College Campus

Fred Franklin, parent and school volunteer, talks about touring a college campus and how it helped the students at his school.

Top College Trends

GreatSchools identified the following additional trends, using information from the NACAC report, reports from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and other sources.

Trends in College Admissions

A college education is becoming less affordable

Families are now devoting a larger percentage of their incomes — and taking out more student loans — to finance a college education.

The average tuition for in-state, public, four-year colleges has ballooned by 35% since 2001-2002. The tuition for private colleges grew at a lower rate, but the actual dollar increases are much larger than for public colleges.

According to Measuring Up 2006, a study from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 62% of public college graduates and 73% of private college graduates leave their schools with debt, as well as a degree. The report claims current graduates “are the most heavily indebted young Americans in our history.”

More applicants are using the Early Decision or Early Action option

Early Decision is defined by NACAC as “the application process in which students make a commitment to a first-choice institution where, if admitted, they definitely will enroll. Early Action is the application process in which students make application to an institution of preference and receive a decision well in advance of the institution’s regular response rate.” In 2007, 319 four-year colleges, about 15% of all, offered a form of Early Decision or Early Action.

Opponents of Early Decision and Early Action believe these programs are unfair because they force lower-income students to make decisions before receiving all of their financial aid offers. In response to the critics, Harvard and Princeton dropped their Early Decision and Early Action programs in the fall of 2007 – actions which many predict will influence the direction of this trend in the future. (Harvard’s early admissions program allowed students the freedom to change their minds, but Harvard officials still felt that it was an obstacle for less affluent students.)

In October of 2006, NACAC members agreed to a new policy that bars member colleges from accepting students earlier than September 15th and creating application deadlines earlier than October 15th. This action is an attempt to block college frenzy from creeping into summer vacation, a time when high school counselors are unavailable for advice.

The number of colleges that do not require SAT or ACT scores for admission grows

Fair Test, the anti-standardized-testing organization, lists roughly 730 colleges, on its Web site that have dropped or de-emphasized the ACT or SAT tests, including 30 competitive liberal arts colleges, such as Bennington, Goucher, Middlebury, Mt. Holyoke, and Lewis and Clark.

Colleges that have dropped the admissions test requirement say these tests do not accurately predict a student’s college success and unnecessarily add to the stress of their high school years.

High school GPAs are often recalculated by colleges

About 50% of colleges recalculate high school GPAs to account for grade inflation and to standardize grades across high schools. For example, many colleges give an extra point to grades from honors, AP or IB classes, making an A worth 5 points rather than the traditional 4 points.

The gender gap grows wider in undergraduate admissions

A 2006 American Council of Education report found that in 2003-2004, 45% of students under the age of 24 were men and 55% were women. This marks a widening of the gap since 1995-1996, when males represented 48% of the same age group. The report points out that the number of degrees granted, for both men and women, is growing, and that men are not losing ground – they’re just not keeping up with women – in the acquisition of bachelor’s degrees.

Many colleges track a student’s interest in attending and will use it as a factor in the admission decision

A student’s interest can be used as a tie breaker if the decision to admit is tight. Colleges measure interest by keeping records of communications with the admissions office, contacts with faculty members or tours taken of the campus by prospective students.

“One-stop” state-wide college Web sites are catching on

State-wide Web sites, such as Georgia’s GACollege411, offer information about the state’s colleges and universities, and admission and financial-aid applications. Users can also find free SAT prep classes, class planners for high school students and virtual campus tours. Over 35 states now offer these sites. Visit, for a partial list of these sites.

For-profit and online universities continue to be a growing force in higher education

The Society for College and University Planning reports that in 2007 more than 1.5 million students were engaged in online post-secondary education, an increase of 24% from 2005.

Online and for-profit institutions, such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, are projected to serve over 11% of all students in degree-granting colleges in 2008.

Trends in College Completion

Students take longer to graduate

Students in public colleges are now taking an average of 6.2 years to graduate, instead of the traditional four years. Their private college counterparts are taking slightly less time – 5.3 years.

The United States falls behind in college completion

The Measuring Up 2006 report shows that the U.S. has fallen from the number one spot in the world to seventh in the proportion of 25- to 34-year olds holding college degrees. Even worse, the U.S. is in the bottom half of all developed nations for rates of college completion.

Two factors account for these concerning statistics. One, while the United States made rapid progress in sending its citizens to college between World War II and the 1990s, the rate of college participation has leveled off since then. Why this is so is not clear, although the drop in college affordability probably plays a major role. Secondly, other countries, such as Canada, Japan, Korea and Finland, are making rapid progress in improving their rates of college completion.

Trends for Selective Colleges

David Montesano, director of college planning at College Match, a Seattle-based college placement firm, identified these trends for highly selective colleges, the target institutions for many of his clients:

  • According to NACAC, the main college application essay is valuable, and in some cases it may be worth more than class rank, minority status and letters of recommendation. The number of colleges saying that it is important to the process has doubled in the last 10 years. The most important thing to remember when writing the essay, according to College Match Writing Associate Naren Murthy, is to make an emotional connection with your reader. Most readers are bored with essays in which students “tell” admission officers what to think. Instead, Murthy recommends applicants “show” them a moment in their life by using creative writing techniques, including language in the first person and present tense, and using dialogue wherever possible to bring the admission officer into the story.
  • College visiting is on the increase. Once a mostly optional choice for college applicants, the college tour has become more of a requirement for many students. U.C. Santa Barbara logged a record 38,000 visitors last year, a number that requires three full-time staff members and a squadron of 60 undergraduate tour guides.
  • Students have less than a 5% chance to get into top tier colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford. According to Montesano, “Chances for admission are very unlikely for most candidates who don’t have a ‘flag’ or ‘tag’ in the admission process. ‘Flags’ and ‘tags’ represent varying degrees of admission importance to colleges and include sought-after athletes, under-represented minorities or legacies.”
  • Merit scholarships have become more common as colleges award money to applicants for academic, artistic or athletic merit, rather than for financial need. Says Montesano: “High-quality, yet slightly less selective, colleges such as Allegheny and Lewis and Clark, routinely offer top students modest scholarships to help offset the cost of attendance.”
  • West coast colleges have become more attractive to applicants. “West coast universities and liberal arts colleges now feature more prominently in the admission picture and often overlap increasingly with Ivy League and Little Ivy (Amherst, Wesleyan and Williams) applications. ‘West coast ivies’ include: Caltech, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Occidental, Pomona, Reed, Scripps, Stanford, USC and Whitman,” says Montesano.
  • There’s a movement toward a “holistic” admissions philosophy, even among larger public universities, where GPA and test scores are not the only major determining factors. College admissions officers, faced with an avalanche of qualified applicants, now increasingly use personal essays and other factors to get a more holistic picture of the applicant.

Keep It Sane

Applying to college can be stressful, but students and parents alike need to keep things in the proper perspective. Lloyd Thacker, director of The Education Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve the admissions process, warns parents to resist the admissions frenzy for prestigious schools. Thacker contends that “college rankings, standardized testing, costly test preparation, expensive marketing consultants for colleges and highly-paid independent consultants for students are profiting from fear, anxiety and myths they have helped create. A commercialized point of view is what turns the admissions process into a game and education into a game.”

Thacker adds: “There is very little evidence that correlates the status of a college with effective educational practice. Parents need to listen to the facts, not their friends at cocktail parties.”

Do Your Homework

Trends, shifting college reputations and each student’s unique needs means that parents and students need to do their homework. Make a list of the colleges you’d consider, then dig in to do the research on each college, it’s programs, requirements, financial aid stats and deadlines.

Be aware that colleges are constantly changing the emphases they place on different admissions factors. Have your student talk to her high school counselor and stay current on the requirements and trends. Brown University, for example, requires multiple essays on its application form, while the University of Oregon requires none.

Helpful Web Sites for College Research

Look for These Books

Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges by Loren Pope, Penguin, revised edition 2006.

Earnings from Learning: The Rise of For-Profit Universities edited by David W. Breneman, Brian Pusser, Sarah E. Turner, SUNY Press, 2006.

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