Enrollment Blog

Fall application surge cools off this winter

by Pam Kiecker Royall, Ph.D.

For a moment last fall, application rates heated up.

The 171 schools from our November FAFSA activity flash poll confirmed a substantial surge of applications submitted in concert with the new FAFSA timeline. Things looked good for entering class potential, both in raw numbers and in class makeup.

But, within just a few short weeks, many institutions found their application rates beginning to slow, due in part to students submitting fewer applications than in years past.  Some institutions fell from positions of relative enrollment comfort to the alarming realization that they were short on applications.

The latest installment of Royall & Company’s ongoing study of FAFSA activity, conducted in January with 145 institutions spanning geographic regions, selectivity, and institution type, now demonstrates that this cooling trend continued throughout the winter for many institutions. 

Earlier submissions, but not necessarily more for everyone

Our most recent responses indicate that, on average, 2017 applications are up 4% compared with January of 2016.  These gains are important (and more likely for schools that are rural, public, less selective, and located in the South), but we should not let them overshadow or obscure what is, for many, a cautionary insight from our most recent analyses: The fall surge in applications did not foretell a large net increase in applications, but rather an acceleration of applications from a reduced applicant pool. 

Among schools that completed both our November and January FAFSA polls, more than half (57%) reported being up in applications in November, but many of those schools have subsequently reported decreased (32%) or flat (24%) overall application volume.   

Early FAFSA calendar has accelerated aid packages

These shifts suggest that the early FAFSA not only fueled the surge in early applications but also may have played a role in the reduction of applications later in the admissions season. Why? The October FAFSA enabled schools to offer their admissions and aid packages earlier as well.   

Our study indicates 60% of schools released aid offers before the winter holidays, whereas in 2016 it took schools until March to reach that number. Consistent with our November survey responses, 32% of January poll participants reported that they are communicating need-based financial aid offers with their letters of admission, with selective schools the most likely to do so.

Application rates signal next steps for enrollment managers

We believe this data indicates that the acceleration of applications, admissions, and aid packaging allowed many students to narrow their range of applications and eliminate second-attempt applications to their second-choice schools. They applied, were admitted, and the process was over for them. 

Consistent with this position, we found that schools experiencing application gains this year have already admitted 18% more students than they had at the same time in 2016. On the other hand, institutions that are down in applications this year are also down in admissions by an average of 10%. 

Where do we go from here?

The earlier FAFSA continues to infuse this enrollment cycle with volatility we’ve not seen—nor could have anticipated—before.  We hope that the next installment of our ongoing application timing research proves to be more positive in the short term and will ultimately afford our partners a new footing for application strategies in subsequent years.

In the meantime, we encourage enrollment leaders to scrutinize their application data often and cultivate the agility to respond to whatever this winter’s cooling trend signals for their spring and summer enrollment strategies.

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