Colleges see flood of applicants—but more may not be better

32% of incoming students in 2013 applied to 7 or more colleges

While the internet has made it easier than ever for students to apply to college, receiving more applications doesn’t necessarily mean meeting enrollment goals, Anne Kim reports for Washington Monthly

The internet has had some benefits for both prospective students and universities. Applicants and their families now have greater access to information about colleges, and institutions can cast a wide net when reaching out to prospective applicants.

"As colleges moved to online applications, many of them looked to streamline the process so it wouldn't be as cumbersome for students," says David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at NACAC. "A lot of colleges also found that it resulted in a lot more applications coming in."

Thirty-two percent of incoming students in 2013 applied to seven or more colleges, up 10 percentage points from 2008, according to the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC). During the 2015-2016 admissions cycle, more than 920,000 students used the Common App—less than half that number used it during the 2008-2009 cycle.

As online applications grow in popularity, students are increasingly hedging their bets by applying to a greater number of colleges. While more affluent students can afford to bolster their online applications with campus visits and other forms of interaction with a college, lower-income students are forced to compete in highly saturated market. Wealthier students can also afford to commit to colleges under early decision, a factor that many institutions value when determining applicants' interest.

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Some college leaders say they now choose from tens of thousands of applicants. Universities do strive for a large applicant pool, as it increases their selectivity. But more applicants alone does not guarantee better talent or a greater yield rate. And if colleges do exceed their enrollment targets to accept more students, they must also adjust housing and financial aid.

"Congestion is what happens when you have a lot of people in the market and too many offers," says Stanford University economics professor and Nobel laureate Alvin Roth. "It's gotten easier to apply to colleges, but now colleges get many more applicants. That changes the 'signal to noise' ratio."

"At many colleges, the increase in applications is certainly more noise than signal," agrees Peter Farrell, managing director at Royall & Company, a division of EAB.

"Gimmicks that simply boost application numbers typically don't translate to sustainable strategies," he says. "While market pressures certainly demand growth in admit pools, how you engineer that growth has everything to do with your ultimate enrollment success."

He encourages institutions interested in growing or shaping their enrollment to look at more than just application numbers.

"The real metrics that matter have to do with growing your pool of admitted students from students engaged early in high school," Farrell says. "This has proven to be the most reliable strategy" (Kim, Washington Monthly, accessed 8/31). 

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