Decision Day 2019 – Trends in Admissions Rates, Yield Rates, and Early Applications

Decision Day has come and gone. On May 1st, high school seniors across the United States (and across the world) said “yes” to the school they’ll be attending for the next four, or five, or even six years (we’re hoping for four, but college – like life- is unpredictable).

The 2018-19 application season was one of the most competitive we’ve seen. We seem to say this every year, and every year it’s true: colleges are receiving more and more applications every year. Both Yale and UC Berkeley, for example, report record-breaking application numbers for the class of 2023; Berkeley alone received over 80,000 applications this past fall.

Last year, we dove deeper into the factors behind this trend. One reason for the steady increase of applications is increased access to higher education. Even in the midst of lawsuits seeking to overturn affirmative action, colleges and universities are making larger efforts to recruit students who may not have considered higher education before with social marketing campaigns, mass mailers, and school visits.

It’s not just a matter 0f widened access; individual students are submitting more applications now that then they have in the past. For one thing, it’s easier. Platforms like the CommonApp and the Coalition App allow students to apply to multiple colleges easily, which means that students went from submitting two or three college applications to submitting six or seven. The National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC)’s 2018 State of College Admissions study states that in 2016, 82% of college-bound students applied to at least three schools, while 35% applied to at least seven.

On the one hand, receiving more applicants than they could possibly admit is a good thing for colleges and universities, because it naturally lowers their admissions rate. As rates drop, colleges begin to look more selective, aligning themselves with top-tier schools like the Ivies. Some eagle-eyed admissions onlookers have suggested that increased application numbers are intentional. Journalists like Janet Lorin argue that colleges encourage unqualified students to apply so they can artificially increase their own selectivity, a policy the Hechinger Report calls “recruit to reject.”

However, mountains of applications also make navigating the admissions process challenging for admissions officers because it can be difficult to tell how serious an applicant is about attending. It doesn’t matter how many schools a student gets accepted to; they can only choose one to attend. Admissions officers are responsible for a college’s yield rate, the percentage of accepted applicants who end up enrolling. As we learned in our piece on demonstrated interest, yield rates are dropping as steadily as application numbers are rising. If a school’s yield rate is too low, the incoming class won’t bring in enough tuition to cover costs, which can throw a school into the spiral of cutting programs and closing doors. If a school’s yield rate is too high, they’ll have to rescind admission, like the University of California, Irvine did in 2017.

Colleges attempt to lessen the uncertainty by focusing heavily on early admissions. Early decision admission, in particular, is a reliable way to ensure a school’s applicants are serious about enrolling. That’s one major reason for the growth of early application in the college admissions world. It’s safer for schools, and it feels safer for students. This year, many of the most competitive schools, including Harvard, admitted up to half their incoming freshmen class in the early admissions period.

Even with the growth of early admissions, May 1st is a stressful day for college admissions officers, because it’s when they’ll find out whether they predicted their yield correctly or not.

If your student hasn’t made their decision yet, there’s still time. The National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) features a tool called the College Openings Update: Options for Qualified Students. It lets families search for colleges that are still accepting applications. So go for it!


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