Knowing the latest college admissions trends will ease your teen’s anxiety about the process. Let’s start with the good news: if your child wants to go to college, the odds are in their favor. Even though some schools have highly competitive admissions processes, many great schools are much easier to get into, and some colleges offer admission to anyone with a high school degree.

Many colleges are also making it easier to apply. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of colleges have dropped their standardized testing requirements. Some have also dropped their application fees. These changes mean that it is much easier and cheaper to apply to some colleges than it was just a few years ago.

But just because it’s easier to apply to college doesn’t mean that it’s any easier to get into the schools that have traditionally been the most selective. Over the past decade, college admissions at some highly-ranked schools has been getting tougher and tougher. In its 2019 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.
    Thanks to population size, higher graduation rates, and a narrowing of the achievement gap, there are more high school students graduating and applying to college than there were 20 years ago, even though the COVID-19 pandemic caused a dip in the number of students who applied to and enrolled in college this year.
  • Students are applying to more schools.
    Changes like test-optional admissions and reduced application fees have made it easier to apply to college than ever before. Since students can so easily research colleges and submit applications to multiple schools using the Common Application, individual students are applying to more colleges. In fact, while about four applications were submitted per student who entered college in 2002, there were nearly seven applications submitted per student in 2017 according to a Pew Research report.

Touring a college campus

Visiting college campuses can help your student get a stronger sense of which college might be the best fit. In the 2016 survey of freshmen, 46.7 percent of students ranked visiting college campuses as a very important part of choosing where to attend. While the availability of in-person tours may still be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools have adapted to offer self-guided campus visits or in-depth virtual tours. Fred Franklin, parent and school volunteer, talks about touring a college campus and how it helped the students at his school. Need inspiration? Here are 15 idea for having a low-key college visit.

Top college trends

GreatSchools identified the following additional trends, using information from the NACAC report, reports from The Institute for College Access and Success, NCES, and other college data sources you can learn about below.

Trends in college admissions

A college education is becoming less and 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, public research universities has ballooned by 72 percent from 2008 to 2021 according to U.S. News tuition data. The tuition for private, nonprofit colleges is even higher, with private institutions charging on average nearly four times as much as public schools.

While many schools heavily discount the sticker price of attendance through financial aid and merit-based scholarships, many students still leave college with debt. In 2019, 62 percent of college graduates left with student loans. Students who attend private, non-profit colleges owe the most, with an average of $37,971 in student loan debt, while students who attend public colleges owe an average of $26,382.

More applicants are using early admissions options

Early admissions — both the binding Early Decision and the non-binding Early Action — typically offer much higher chances of getting in. Students who apply Early Decision are making a commitment to a first-choice school where, if admitted, they definitely will enroll. Early Action, on the other hand, is an indication that the student is highly interested, but even though students find out if they’re admitted early, they don’t need to commit until May 1, when regular admission responses are due. In 2018, 25 percent of four-year colleges that responded to NACAC’s Admission Trends Survey offered Early Decision and 38 percent offered Early Action.

Opponents of Early Decision and Early Action believe these programs are unfair because they prompt lower-income students to make decisions before receiving financial aid offers from other schools. However, as college selectivity has increased, more colleges have made early admissions options available.

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

A growing number of colleges do not require SAT or ACT scores for admission

A majority of colleges no longer require applicants to submit their SAT or ACT scores. While schools have been dropping their standardized testing requirements for several years, the COVID-19 pandemic hurried the trend.

For the 2021-2022 admissions cycle, Fair Test, an anti-standardized-testing organization, lists more than 1,700 colleges—or 73 percent of all schools that grant bachelor’s degrees—as test-optional. In response to those flexible policies, only 43 percent of students who applied to college last year submitted standardized test scores.

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

Colleges often recalculate high school GPAs

Some colleges recalculate high school GPAs to account for grade inflation and to standardize grades across high schools. For example, a college might award an extra point to grades from honors, AP, or IB classes, making an A worth 5 points rather than the traditional 4 points.

The undergraduate gender gap is getting wider

The NCES found that in 2015, 43 percent of college students under the age of 24 were men and 57 percent were women. This marks a widening of the gap since 1995-1996, when males represented 48 percent of the same age group. The number of degrees granted to both men and women is growing, and 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.

Online resources abound

The U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard offers information about colleges and universities across the country, along with application tips and guidance on applying for financial aid. You can use the College Scorecard to search for schools and learn about graduation rates, graduate salaries, and the average annual cost of attendance after accounting for financial aid.

Some states also have their own college websites, such as Georgia’s GAfutures and California’s CaliforniaColleges.edu.

Online education is a growing trend while for-profit enrollment slows

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the availability of online learning, but taking some or all courses online was an increasingly popular choice years before the pandemic began. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than a third of students took at least one online course in 2019, and nearly 15 percent of all undergraduate students took their classes exclusively online.

While online enrollment continues to grow, for-profit colleges have lost popularity in recent years, in part because of aggressive federal regulations and exposure of bad practice at some for-profit schools.

Trends in college completion

Students are taking longer to graduate

Students in public colleges are now taking an average of 5.2 years to graduate, instead of the traditional four years. Their private, nonprofit college counterparts are taking slightly less time — 4.8 years — according to data from the Urban Institute. On average, 61 percent of students at private, nonprofit colleges graduate in four years or less, while 39 percent of students attending public schools graduate in that timeframe.

The U.S. is falling behind in college completion

The U.S. has fallen from second in the world to sixteenth in its proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees. Even worse, the U.S. ranks in the bottom half internationally for rates of college completion based on OECD data.

Two factors account for these concerning statistics. One, while the U.S. made rapid progress in sending its citizens to college between World War II and the 1990s, the increase in the rate of college participation has slowed. 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, outweighing class rank, extracurricular involvement, and letters of recommendation. The most important thing to remember when writing the essay, according to College Match Writing Strategist 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 their reader 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 visits are increasing. Once a mostly optional choice for college applicants, the college tour has become more of a requirement for many students. Colleges receive tens of thousands of prospective student visitors each year and employ a squadron of undergraduate tour guides.
  • Students have less than a 7 percent chance of getting 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.”

It may be helpful to remember that the majority of schools admit most students who apply. In fact, the National Association for College Admission Counseling reports that colleges on average admit nearly seven out of every ten applicants. Some schools—like University of Texas at El Paso and the University of Maryland Global Campus—even have open admissions policies and admit anyone who applies.

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 statistics, and deadlines.

Be aware that colleges are constantly changing the emphasis 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 DePaul University requires none.

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Updated: October 12, 2021