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Update on the 2020-2021 College Admissions Cycle

By this point, many colleges and universities have concluded their Regular Decision processes, notified applicants, and released their adjusted acceptance rates for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle. For some elite universities, those acceptance rates plummeted to record lows, such as Harvard’s 3.4% and Yale’s 4.62%. This 2016 satirical piece in the New York Times announcing Stanford’s supposed “0% acceptance rate” is now looking like a prediction more than a joke — in fact, Stanford has even delayed their admissions decisions due to a staggering influx of applicants this year, which implies they will follow the same trend.

A large number of students are also in waitlist limbo as schools wait to hear back from those accepted applicants. These waitlists are particularly useful for schools that have taken a financial hit during the pandemic and are eager to fill their freshman classes. Some less selective colleges are even still allowing students to apply on a rolling basis, like Ithaca College. Many are also offering new perks to students as an incentive for attendance. What this means for applicants is that wealthy families and families who will be able to pay full tuition will be more likely to get in. This could even happen at some elite schools, despite any increases in financial aid available.

This year’s college admissions cycle has been unique, to say the least, and its long-term effects on the higher education system in the U.S. are not clear yet. Has the process really changed, and if so, what are the most important changes and key takeaways?

One of the most publicized results of this college admissions cycle is that the most prestigious and intensely competitive schools became even harder to get into. This could be attributed to a few factors, including:

A significant increase in the number of applications.

This is the most likely culprit for the plummeting acceptance rates at top colleges in the U.S. With an increase in free time and a lack of after-school activities, many high school seniors remarked that applying to college became their “extracurricular.”

There is also the likelihood that it’s become even harder to stand out because admissions officers didn’t have enough time to properly review applications. One way to skim through the thousands of applicants is to review quantitative data available, such as grades and test scores. But with some schools opting for a pass/fail grading system and standardized testing being canceled or made optional (see below), this led some schools to change evaluation procedures. Still, the standards remained the same for many colleges and universities, meaning that the process simply took longer with more applications to read.

It’s not just the Ivy Leagues either — the University of California system is becoming more selective after receiving the most applications in the United States this cycle, rejecting a large number of in-state applicants even though they are funded by tax dollars.

“Things are much more nuanced now,” says Lisa Przekop, admissions director at UC Santa Barbara, in an interview with NPR. “Maybe in the past, I would’ve focused on that GPA right away. Now when I’m looking at that academic picture, I have to look at the fact that did the student challenge themselves as much as they could have? Were the courses even available? Do I see any trends in their academic performance? If their spring term of last year, their junior year, was all pass/no pass, can I safely assume that they did well in those courses? And that’s where you really had to rely on what the students shared in their essays to try to piece that together.”

Changes to standardized test requirements.

As mentioned before, more schools making standardized tests optional in the admissions process leads to a lack of quantitative data that helps differentiate applicants. Many students were also unable to take standardized tests due to the effects of COVID, but those who did might have had a leg up in the process.

However, these changes could lead to overall changes in the way test scores are considered, even if it doesn’t do away with them completely. Permanent changes to the weight that standardized tests have could benefit low-income students, seeing as test scores are often correlated with a family’s wealth. It could mean a greater emphasis on grades, which are considered in the context of a student’s school offerings, not against national percentiles, or extracurricular involvement. More importance was given to essays as well, especially compelling essays that weren’t on the topic of COVID.

While some schools are becoming test-optional, most of the top schools still rely on test scores, such as UPenn and Georgetown, as our CEO Pierre explained to MarketWatch. Many schools have also declined to share their acceptance rates for students who didn’t submit their scores, and this points to the fact that schools still rely on test scores. Unless schools opt for a strict test-blind policy, we can’t say for a fact that the wave of test-op has had a tremendous impact on the admissions process at the most competitive colleges.

Students on gap years/deferrals taking up space in the new class

A small but still significant group of students who were holding their place after a COVID-inspired hiatus might have had an impact on this year’s applicants. The pitfalls of virtual learning prompted previously enrolled students to take unexpected gap years, and members of the class of 2024 deferred admission in favor of getting the full college experience in the future. This means that there are fewer spots available in the incoming class, where there were already limited spots to begin with.

With all of this in mind, what are the potential changes to come?

Larger and more diverse incoming classes.

There has long been a call for schools with large endowments to expand their class sizes, and this competitive cycle is only bringing that to that to the forefront. Some have heeded the call — for instance, Rice University is increasing its freshman class by 20%, one of the largest increases for private institutions yet. But the needle hasn’t really moved on the issue at the most prestigious universities, with only a slow growth in the resources necessary to make an expansion possible.

In the U.S., the number of high school graduates has risen by 44%, meaning that more people will need a spot at a school somewhere. Despite a surge in applications to top colleges, overall, there was a decrease in the number of students attending college, specifically low-income students. The number of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) also declined 9.1% by March 5 compared with this time last year, and fell more sharply at high schools serving large populations of low-income students and students of color. However, on a positive note, many schools have focused on creating a more diverse freshman class, especially elite schools. These changes have been a long time coming, but racial justice movements last year led to some admissions departments reevaluating their criteria for the better.

A rehaul of the entire process.

Now that the standardized test barrier has begun to break, priorities in the college admissions process may be reevaluated and scrutinized. For example, there is a proposed Colorado law to make CO schools test-optional and remove the legacy status factor that keeps students of alums from securing a spot just because of their last name. Compounded with the effects of Varsity Blues in exposing unfairness in the college admissions process, the strangeness many students, parents, counselors, and admissions officers faced this year may prompt a longer, closer look at the fairness of the existing selection process.

Increased potential for virtual learning.

Virtual life is here to stay in many ways, and college is not an exception. Institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Florida offer degree-earning programs online, and many other schools have at least offered certificates or Coursera classes with the same content they teach to enrolled students. Some schools and universities are still staying with the hybrid model come fall, and community colleges are offering cheaper programs to students who would participate in virtual classes. To put it plainly: don’t delete Zoom just yet.

Even if the college admissions process returns to some semblance of normalcy in the future, it will be hard to forget the lessons of the past year, so don’t expect the COVID-era changes to disappear anytime soon, but our Ivy League consultants are always here to help.

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