More enrollment isn't the holy grail for every institution

Headcount doesn't tell the whole story

Dana Strait, Enrollment Management ForumDana Strait, Enrollment Management Forum

Last week, the Washington Post highlighted outsized enrollment growth at public flagship institutions since 2000. This trend isn't exclusive to flagships—high school graduates are increasingly drawn to selective public universities, gravitating away from the high list prices of private institutions and toward the value offered by publically subsidized institutions.

The increased market power of selective publics has not only led to enrollment growth but also to a rise in selectivity—the academic quality of student populations at selective public schools is on the rise, evidenced by an almost 50-point jump in average freshman SAT scores. This is not a trend within other segments of the four-year market. For many segments, it's quite the opposite—academic quality has been declining at regional public and regional private institutions.

Learn more: Are today's students migrating to value?

While the article applauded flagships with outsized enrollment growth, it also called out flagships that had not grown—but without the added nuance that many of these schools faced limited capacity from the start. This could have been avoided by considering acceptance rates alongside enrollment headcount.

The University of Florida (UF), for example, was already enrolling over 6,000 first-time full-time freshmen in the fall of 2001 and had no intention of growing fall freshman class size. Although the university held freshmen enrollment steady, they have seen a drastic spike in demand. Applications have jumped from 18,625 in 2001 to 27,107 in 2013, and acceptance rates have dropped almost 15 percentage points—the university now accepts just 45% of all freshman applicants.

As a result, academic quality is on the rise—average SAT scores are up 40 points over the same time period.

Despite fall capacity constraints, Florida has opened doors to enrollment for students who otherwise would have been denied by launching alternate programs whose enrollment isn't captured by IPEDS. For example, 200 freshmen who otherwise would have been denied are enrolling every year into Florida's Spring-Summer undergraduate track, the "Innovation Academy." And "Pathway to Campus" (PACE) provided 3,000 otherwise-denied freshmen an online option for enrollment this fall, guaranteeing them a seat on-campus following the completion of 15 credits through UF-Online.

Selective public institutions are increasing in market power across the board, but enrollment doesn't capture the whole story.

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