Scott Jaschik recently interpreted the findings from the 2017 Survey of Admission Directors, sponsored by Inside Higher Education and Gallup and drawn from a sample of 453 admission directors. While the full discussion of these findings is too complex for this space, the general conclusions, especially those specific to enrollment patterns, are telling.
Nearly two-thirds of colleges missed enrollment targets
The most startling finding is that “only 34 percent of colleges met new student enrollment targets this year by May 1, the traditional date by which most institutions hope to have a class set.” This number is down from 37 percent a year ago and 42 percent two years ago.
At the public doctoral institutions, the story was a bit more rosy, but even there only 59 percent of the institutions met their May 1 enrollment target. Only 22 percent of public/bachelor’s/master’s institutions, 27 percent of community colleges, and 36 percent of private colleges and universities met their May enrollment targets.
This is a growing issue since most colleges and universities are heavily dependent on tuition revenue; hence, the size of the incoming and returning classes directly impacts their financial bottom line.
Admissions leaders see fundamental shift in enrollment trends
The reaction of admissions leaders is especially interesting. For this year, 55 percent said that they were very concerned while 30 percent said they were somewhat concerned. This number increased slightly from the 54 percent who were very concerned a year ago and more dramatically from the 31 percent who expressed deep concern two years ago.
There seems to be a growing recognition that the numbers will not support older, more favorable patterns of enrollment. In short, admission officers understand that something fundamental has changed.
That’s a good beginning for those worried about how demographics, consumer whim, political expediency, sticker price, tuition discounting, and retention and graduation rates intersect to produce this softness in the market.
The IHE/Gallup survey also looked at how colleges and universities are reacting to this softness, asking about the tools that admissions officials will use to strengthen their market share. Among the key findings:
- Many colleges, especially private institutions, appear to be focusing recruiting strategies on students with the capacity to pay full tuition and fees.
- In the realm of international student recruiting, many say that American higher education has become too dependent on students from a few countries, but most admissions directors don’t think that’s true of their institutions.
- While most colleges don’t check applicants’ social media, some do — and some applicants are being rejected or having acceptances revoked because of their posts.
- Officials at many colleges, more public than private, say they are stepping up recruitment of rural and low-income white students in the wake of the election, and a small minority of colleges is stepping up recruitment of conservative students.
- Admissions directors strongly believe that higher education has an image problem with ramifications for enrollment patterns — and that image problem may be the worst for liberal arts colleges.
- Admissions directors — from both public and private institutions — believe they are losing potential applicants because of concerns about debt. But private and public college admissions leaders differ on how much debt is reasonable.
- The idea of free tuition in public higher education is seen by most private college admissions directors as a threat to their institutions. While admissions directors in public higher education are more open to the idea, they have areas of skepticism as well.
Enrollment solutions being considered are incremental, not systemic
What’s striking about the tools employed by the admissions officials is that they are tactical and incremental. Those surveyed do not appreciate that the solution must be more comprehensive and linked to a broader view of how higher education must adapt to the complex intersection of the changes that are buffeting it. Their solutions are scattershot and more like a band-aid applied to surface wounds, with no apparent connection among the challenges and opportunities that American higher education faces.
The problem is simple to diagnose. America’s colleges and universities utilize operating and financial models developed in the 1960s and 1970s that no longer work for them.
It was possible to disguise the growing crisis now affecting higher education when improving demographics, state and federal government policy, and a simple “revenue must meet expense” financial accounting successfully disguised what was coming. The assumption was that rising family incomes would overcome recessions and any attempt to cap revenue built into older tuition models. But the global economy has changed and the path ahead is far less certain.
That’s not to say that the sky is falling on America’s colleges and universities.
Each institution must find its own unique solution because their historic circumstances, market positions, and financial resources differ.
It is a call for action. The trustees, administrators and faculty must have the stamina to lead through creative solutions and at a faster pace than the incremental changes suggested by the IHE survey.
For thousands of high school students, October marks the start of the college application season. Application deadlines approach, standardized tests and essays are finalized, and this year, an earlier deadline for the FAFSA financial aid application.
In a series of reports last month, seasoned higher education journalist Scott Jaschik presented some interesting findings about the state of admissions. In a piece entitled “More Applications, Plenty of Spaces,” he addressed the number of applications and the availability of admissions openings on college campus, drawing from a survey by the National Association of College Admission Counselors (NACAC).
Later in the month, Mr. Jaschik discussed and interpreted the findings from the 2016 Inside Higher Education Survey of College and University Admissions Officers on a wider variety of issues, including the pressure to build the incoming admissions class.
Taken together, the results paint the picture of a higher education admissions community under considerable stress although the factors vary by size, type, and whether public or private.
The good news in this year’s NACAC study is that the number of applications is up by about six percent for first-time freshman, four percent for transfers, and 23 percent for students from outside the United States.
Troubling Signs for Enrollment Offices
As you look “under the hood,” however, some troubling signs suggest that the levels of stress and uncertainty in enrollment offices continue.
The NACAC study reports that only 19.7% of the colleges and universities surveyed admitted fewer than 50 percent of their applicants, while 36 percent admitted 50 to 70 percent of their applicants. The average admissions rate for colleges for enrollment in 2014 was 65.8 percent, up from 64.7 percent the year before.
The NACAC study also looked at yield — the percentage of admitted students who enroll. The number rose slightly to 36.2 percent but was down substantially from 2002 when it was just under 50 percent. Just under 40 percent of the colleges used a waiting list. An average of 32 percent of students who stayed on the list were offered an admissions spot although the percentage was far lower at the most selective colleges.
Among the factors that influenced admissions decisions, less than 15 percent reported that race and ethnicity had a moderate or considerable influence. For first generation applicants, the colleges noted that this factor played a moderate or considerable role in about 16 percent of the applicants.
What Do Admissions Officers Think About All of This?
The Inside Higher Education survey was more topical by design, looking at admission officers reactions to issues like the new SAT, the launch of a new college application to compete with the Common Application, a calendar shift in application deadlines for financial aid, the free public education proposals of political candidates, and the US Supreme Court decision upholding race and ethnicity in college admission decisions.
The most comparable findings to the NACAC study dealt with whether colleges and universities met their historic May 1 admission deadlines. The survey found that the proportion of private colleges that met their May 1 admission goals was down one percentage point to 41 percent. But the percentage of public colleges meeting their May 1 admission goals was down dramatically to 29 percent.
Mr. Jaschik reported that the decline was almost all from community colleges whose admissions officials do not focus as much on a May 1 deadline. Significantly, while 20 percent of community colleges related that they met their May 1 admissions target a year ago, only nine percent did in this year’s survey. In fact, 88 percent of the community colleges report that they are down compared to two years ago.
If we separate these numbers from other data that could be layered on, like financial aid discounting, transfer practices, and retention, the concerns continue to rise. But even looking at these basic admission data, the picture over the short term at least is clear.
Look Beyond Elite Schools for True Picture
The obvious conclusion is that all of higher education is not Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, or Yale where single percentage admission numbers show no particular relevance to the rest of America’s colleges and universities. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Selectivity and quality remain distinctive traits only sometimes shared in common. The numbers suggest that Americans can still get a great education, minus the snob appeal of the anointed, resource-rich few at the top of the pyramid.
The real danger is that there is a growing chasm between what higher education offers and the willingness of Americans to take advantage of it. On this level, it seems to be a mix of economics, politics, psychology, and optics.
The root of the problem is most likely that higher education –whether public or private – has created an unsustainable operating model that no longer makes sense.
Challenge for Institutional Leadership, Not Just Admissions
And therein lies the problem. At its most fundamental, enrollment is code for revenue. It’s a critical distinction when America’s colleges and universities are so heavily dependent on tuition for their survival. The survey numbers suggest that American higher education has a growing revenue problem masked by a softening admission market of students who fill seats in college classrooms.
Follow the money. The solution rests not in admission offices but with trustees and administrative and faculty leadership who must read and interpret what they see. It’s a clear call to shake off the inertia on most college campuses while there is still time to act.