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Common App: Applications to highly selective colleges up by 25% in 2 years

Dive Brief:

  • Applications to highly selective colleges that use the Common App soared 25% over the past two years, according to new data from the organization as of mid-February. 
  • However, application numbers for first-year students were up across the board by 14% for the more than 850 Common App colleges included in the data set, with significant increases in underrepresented minority and first-generation applicants. 
  • This may be fueled by the growing contingent of colleges no longer requiring SAT or ACT scores for admissions. The share of Common App institutions mandating entrance exams dropped from 55% in 2019-20 to 5% in 2021-22. 

Dive Insight:

The Common App’s new report may suggest some relief for a pandemic-battered industry.

Undergraduate enrollment at colleges across the U.S. dipped by about 1 million students from fall 2019 to fall 2021, a more than 6% drop, according to recent National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data. 

Not all colleges felt the enrollment pinch to the same degree, however. Public four-year colleges experienced a nearly 4% decline while private nonprofit four-year colleges only saw a roughly 2% drop, the research center reported. 

In the new Common App data, almost 60% of applications went to private institutions. But public colleges in the Common App membership enjoyed more application growth, up 25% from two years ago, compared to private colleges, which had an 18% increase. 

The Common App excluded the newest of its 900 member colleges in the new report to accurately compare figures from 2019-20 to the current admissions cycle. 

The organization also reported large increases in the share of underrepresented minority students — which it defined as Black, Latinx, Native American or Alaska Native and Pacific Islander — applying to college. Applicants from these groups increased 17% from prior to the pandemic. And the share of first-generation applicants also went up 21%.

However, more than half of U.S. applicants hailed from the wealthiest quintile of ZIP codes, while just 6% came from the least affluent. 

Applications to less-selective and moderately-selective colleges only increased 17%, compared to a 25% jump in those to highly selective colleges. Common App considers highly selective institutions to be those that accept less than 50% of applicants. Many institutions are much more selective, however. 

Conversations around enrollment nationwide highlight the disparities among colleges.

The University of California System, one of the largest public higher ed networks in the country, received a record-breaking number of applications – 251,179 for fall 2022 – with the share of first-year, underrepresented applicants from California rising from 45.1% in 2021 to 45.5%. UC labels African-American, American-Indian, Latino/Chicano and Pacific Islander as underrepresented.

Transfer applicants were down for UC, reflecting the declining enrollment among California’s community colleges. 

Meanwhile, representatives from Lousiana’s public colleges recently lamented falling enrollment and participation in the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS, The Advocate reported. TOPS is a state merit scholarship initiative that benefits students attending public and approved private institutions. 

Public colleges’ enrollment dropped nearly 3%, according to the publication, though at two of the state’s prominent institutions, Louisiana State University and Southern University and A&M College, enrollment increased.


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