The Enrollment Blog

Earlier admission is better—but is regular too late?

Trends from the graduating class of 2017, as told by a high school counselor

by Carol Stack

We’ve talked a lot about the impact of the early FAFSA on college enrollment offices. Today, I want to share the other side of that story: the view from the high school counselor’s chair.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Phil Trout, the immediate past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and college counselor at Minnetonka High School, to learn how recent enrollment changes have impacted the behavior of college-bound seniors and the high school counselors who guide them through college application and decision.

Carol Stack: The early FAFSA has really changed the enrollment landscape. How has it impacted graduating high school classes?

Phil Trout: I’ve noticed a significant impact on early applications. By November 1, 60% more of our students had already applied to schools than the previous year—primarily for Early Action (EA) institutions and scholarship-linked priority institutions, not Early Decision (ED).

I think this early application surge may be due, in part, to increased recruitment and marketing, as schools have been starting promotion to students earlier in the calendar year. Several college and university admission representatives visited Minnetonka High during the fall; they also affirmed application numbers “were through the roof.” But, as you know, these high numbers were not sustained throughout the application cycle.

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CS: Have you seen any impact after the application period?

PT: We’ve definitely seen increased waitlist numbers. They more than doubled from the year prior, and I’ve heard the same thing from other college counselors. “Waitlisting” appears to be an additional tactic for institutions to increase yield.

As a college counselor, I was frustrated by the concurrent increase in students given an EA defer and then a regular waitlist… I had one college tell me, “We really, really liked your student...” but I had to interject, “You can’t say ‘really’ twice for a student you deferred during EA and then placed on the waitlist during regular decision!”

Interestingly, we did see movement on several of these waitlisted students before May 1—mostly for those students who demonstrated interest by calling the school, asking for more resources, and, in a few cases, showing up at the door!

I’m waiting—and I don’t think it’s too far off—for a college to have the courage to create an Early Decision Three (ED3).

CS: Can you expand on how you would see an ED3 working?

PT: Take the student who was waitlisted but admitted in April. This was probably not by chance. It was because of the student’s demonstrated interest, indicating something like, “If you take me off the waitlist, I’m coming.” Now that move to an admit in April was because the college had a strong feeling that they were going to get a yield, and that’s a form of ED3.

ED3 would probably play out in mid-January when, for example, a student has just realized that a school is their number one choice, but their only option is to apply regular. There are ways for students to demonstrate strong interest in regular admission, but there’s nothing quite as compelling as that ED binding agreement form.

CS: So what is to become of the “regular” enrollment cycle?

PT: That’s the big question of the year. We know that, of course, earlier is better—but is regular too late? We’re starting to see increasing numbers of institutions capturing more than 50% of their class from ED. A few years ago, I’d guess that number was less than 20 schools, and this year it’s closer to 50 schools.

As a public school, we only had a small number of students apply ED, but today you’ll find a fairly large number of independent schools where over three-fourths are applying ED. So who gets in regular? Who’s left for regular?

CS: Have you noticed anything unique about the personality of this class compared to previous years?

PT: Yes: Frugality. Gen Z high school graduates—including those from private high schools—have an increased affinity for affordable public flagship schools. I had one student turn down multiple Ivy League acceptances for a presidential scholarship to a public school. This is not something I would have seen three years ago.

The driving force behind these economic reality decisions is being promoted by the students themselves. Gen Z have spent much of their lives living through the economic downturn. Some of these kids have a parent who lost a job, or they have an aunt or uncle who lost their house, and this has impacted their decision making.

I have to believe now that schools that didn’t have an ED2 are wondering, “Should we?” And I have to believe that there are schools that don’t offer merit scholarships that are now having conversations about the kids they lost, wondering, “Should we?”

CS: Did Minnetonka students make decisions right away, or did they use the extended time period?

PT: Our students were all over the map. In a world where you keep hearing “earlier and earlier,” we still had a third of the senior class who hadn’t yet told us their decision in late April.

So, I’m not sure if we are a typical school, but we had students who made decisions before the end of first semester after already receiving merit and financial aid, and we also had many students who seemed to want May 1 to remain May 1 for their decision deadline.

CS: Do you have any advice as we look toward the future?

PT: I still sense the same level of excitement, anticipation, and joy in our students. Although high school counselors and college enrollment officials are grappling with changing practices, we have to always remember that for the high school class of 2018, it’s all brand new. For them, it’s still the first time and it’s an important, special decision.

Next, view the full findings from our early FAFSA flash poll

Want to know more about how early FAFSA is impacting applications? See the complete findings in our white paper "Early FAFSA/ISIR Activity."

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