6 observations on this year's college application process

So many decisions
  1. Listen What's happening with this year's college application process

    My conversation with Tom Crann on All Things Considered

With today being the postmark deadline for students to inform colleges they’re attending, what have Minnesota admissions officials and counselors seen so far in the application process?

Huge increases in the number of applications, from what I’ve heard — some that rival the 30-50 percent increases we’re seeing in the Ivy League.

As Hamline University Admissions Director Milyon Trulove said:

“There’s been no jump like this in recent history.”

Here some observations several admissions officials have made:

  • Students are waiting to the last minute — or longer –  to decide. Joe Wicklund, admissions director at the College of St. Scholastica, said students will push the May 2 deadline when they can. (Scholastica is flexible on that one.) “Deadlines to this group are not as critical. They are taking as long as they possibly can to make their decision. The universal reply date of May (2) is not as important. They’ll push into Mid-may to get that last piece of financial aid or look at that last school. It makes sense for them, considering everything they keep hearing about federal changes to the Pell Grant, and funding (cuts) in Minnesota.” Macalester College admissions director Steve Colee said he’s also seeing a slower response rate.
  • Students are applying to more colleges. St. Scholastica’s Wicklund said 3-5 would have been normal in 2000, but now it’s 6-9 “or even a bit more.” Minnetonka High School college counselor Phil Trout says a couple dozen students there apply to more than 10. That said, Trout suspects the economy has caused a number of his students to apply to just one or two colleges: “(Students are thinking) ‘Why pay a $40-50 fee to apply to yet another college that they’re not going to go to anyway?”
  • Technology has been key to the surge. Admissions officers say the online Common Application is a big cause of the boost, because students have to fill out basic information only once. (So it’s easy to hedge your bets and apply even to those colleges a student is only mildly interested in.) It has been so effective that Macalester College dropped its own application this year, saying students will appreciate having only one way to apply. Yet it has received more than than 6,100 — up about 42 percent from last year, and an all-time high. Gustavus Adolphus saw a 50 percent surge, Hamline University saw a jump of more than 41 percent, and MSU-Moorhead saw a 22.5 percent rise. Trout said the “snap apps” or “quick apps” sent out by colleges help. They’re applications that come already partially filled out and wave application fees or other application requirements, making them easier for students to apply. And the “self-reported app,” in which students can save colleges work (and themselves a lot of wait time) by supplying their own academic records are playing a greater role, he said. (By the way, Trout said the vast majority of students are honest in stating their academic records.)
  • California is a supplier of candidates. Colleges here are seeing an influx of refugees from that state’s troubled public system. Hamline, for example, saw applications from there jump 30 percent.
  • College selectivity is increasing. More applications for the same number of spots = lower chances for everybody. Macalester admitted just 32 percent of students this year, down from 43 percent last year — a difference of 11 percentage points. Gustavus Adolphus had a similar drop, from 71 percent to 60 percent. Nationally, some columnists have criticized college marketing efforts that lead to such “application inflation,” but Minnesota admissions officials say more applications gives the school more diversity and stronger students — while giving students a chance to learn more about colleges they might not have though about.
  • But deposits seem strong. It’s way too early to judge what’s going on from what I’ve gained anecdotally, but colleges such as Gustavus and Hamline are seeing a steady rate of deposits from students who have agreed to enroll and want to save themselves a spot. That’s interesting, because deposits of several hundred dollars or more usually signal commitment — meaning some schools have overcome the “low yield” problem that plagues high application rates. (Higher application rates for a school tend to result in a lower percentage of students who end up going there, because a large percentage of those applications tend to come from less-interested students.)