As longtime college counselors, my partner and I are pretty good at figuring out who will get into certain schools, especially when it comes to the highly competitive universities that only let in a sliver of their applicants. Given our experience, we were certain that one of our students aimed too high with her application to Penn, a school that usually only lets in about 8.4% of those who apply. While she had strong test scores, her uneven grades and minimal extracurriculars would likely hold her back. Or so we thought. Back in August, her credentials seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle to her Ivy League ambitions. By October, the time to apply for Early Decision (ED), we had a very different, and now positive outlook for her getting into her first choice. What changed?
Schools in a Bind
Two factors have put pressure on schools to accept more students than they normally would. The first began before the pandemic. With the Trump Administration making it both harder to come to the US and less enticing for students to be here, foreign applications had already declined. According to the Institute for International Education (IEE), enrollments of new, international students declined by 43%. For schools, this decrease is a significant financial issue. Students from abroad often pay the full cost of tuition, which helps balance out the various scholarships and other deductions offered to Americans. This loss is not just felt by schools. A study by the NAFSA estimated plunging foreign enrollment cost the US economy $1.8 billion.
The second and most obvious factor is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, freshmen enrollment at US colleges for 2020 was down 13% from the prior year. It’s easy to see why. High school seniors spent last spring begrudgingly taking classes via Zoom, and they and their parents were worried about what a college education would look like in the fall. What made it worse was that hardly any schools were offering a discount despite the massive change to academic and social life on campus. In short, matriculating this fall with all of the uncertainties, fears, and constraints caused by the virus made college far less appealing.
Standardized Testing Takes a Hit
Besides making prospective student’s hesitant to commit, the virus has had another major impact on the admissions process. Normally in the summer and fall, high school seniors and recent graduates would be busy preparing for and stressing out about taking their final standardized tests (the SATs or ACT). In the past, even when schools said that these tests were optional, competitive applicants often submitted results as they considered strong scores an advantage—a way to separate themselves from the pack. However, due to the pandemic, for the first time, nearly all colleges said they would be test-optional.
For many years, colleges have complained that the College Board, which creates and provides the SAT, has too much power. Critics have argued that the non-profit has turned testing into a lucrative business, collecting over $1.1 billion dollars annually in revenue from hefty fees. Detractors say the test plays too great a role in college admissions, where scores are often the second most important factor in gaining admission for students. Now, with tests truly optional, would critics finally see an improved situation for applicants?
In the short term, schools and students may both obtain an advantage from this change. Finally, poor testers or those without tutoring won’t be critiqued for less than stellar SAT or ACT scores. Instead, they may gain more consideration for their efforts throughout high school. The ominous counterpoint to this benefit is that without standardized tests, many fear that affluent students will see greater benefits because colleges will be forced to rely on picking from high schools they know well and have a proven track record of producing qualified applicants. Instead of evening the playing field, the test optional path may tilt it more as admissions officers may be less likely to take students from unknown high schools, negatively affecting lower income students from lesser known institutions.
Early Decision is Less Important
I began this article by discussing one of our students who applied Early Decision. Normally, ED is something we recommend when a student is a great candidate for a school and wants just a little bit of an edge. Since ED acceptances are binding, colleges like taking a certain number of these applicants because they will have a better understanding of their incoming classes. Unfortunately, the downside of ED for many families is that the process doesn’t let the student weigh financial incentives from competing schools.
In normal times, students of families that couldn’t afford to pay the full cost of a higher education—and that’s a large portion of students—would have to apply Regular Decision. Besides the added stress of not knowing about any acceptances until perhaps as late as the spring, these applicants were disadvantaged compared to those applying ED. Now, in COVID times, with schools impacted by the decline in students, admissions officers are feeling pressure to accept more students to make up for the shortfall in tuition dollars, whether they were Early or Regular Decision applicants (this trend is also helping those considering a transfer).
Just as with the test optional situation, the improved odds for regular decision isn’t necessarily good for all. With revenue a driving factor, schools are likely to be forced to look for more students that can pay their way. They won’t admit that, but it’s a reality. As a result, the wealthy are likely to see the most benefit.
Despite the Upheaval, the Same Long-term Questions Remain
Next year, we can assume the vaccine’s distribution will help return the college experience to normal, inspiring more students to apply and attend. Also, the incoming Biden-Harris administration will be welcoming to foreign students, likely increasing enrollment further. As for whether standardized testing will fade in importance or regain its stature, that is a big question. The College Board will certainly want to resuscitate its cash cow, but schools and students might just move on from it.
So what does it all mean? Are we entering a new era of college admissions complete with significantly revised rules? It’s too soon to tell. The two most pressing issues remain unsolved: how to fairly judge applicants regardless of financial means, and how to make an education affordable.