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Student college choices both practical and strategic

Robert Alexander at the University of Rochester, like many in admissions, says he has spent a lot of time thinking about how “the impact of the pandemic seems to have exacerbated the story of the haves and have-nots that we’ve seen trending over the last decades in college access.”

National trends in the application process—policies such as test-optional admissions and more lenient high school transcript reviews—offered a new way for fortunate students “to access even more prestigious levels of higher education,” says Alexander, dean of admissions, financial aid and enrollment management. Meanwhile, in the two-year sector and for at-risk populations, “we continue to worry they are falling out of the higher education pipelines,” he adds.

Admissions employees at Rochester, which went test optional soon before the pandemic hit, urge students to focus on the opportunities presented in the past two years, such as spending additional time with family, having conversations about heritage and values, learning a new skill, and reading more.

“We’ve been giving counsel to students to not be dismayed or focused too much in their application materials on what they didn’t get to do in their high school careers,” says Alexander. The approach promotes introspection while helping to “de-escalate the college admissions arms race.” Administrators acknowledge the real, devasting impacts of COVID while encouraging students to share the good.

The latest Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, sponsored by Kaplan, sought perspective from both students whose college search and enrollment were impacted by the pandemic and those who were already in college by spring 2020. Students in each group tended to have made decisions based on practical matters such as location, academic offerings, price and flexibility in the admissions process. Capturing the perspective of 2,001 undergraduates and fielded Feb. 23 to March 1, the survey found that:

  • Students at four-year institutions had a wide variety of reasons for choosing their college, with the top responses being major or program of interest offered there, good overall academic reputation, proximity to home, quality of academics in the area of interest, price of tuition, and financial aid package/scholarships. Students at community colleges (250 of those surveyed) overwhelmingly chose based on proximity to home and cost.
  • One-quarter of the full sample rate their experience with college admissions as excellent, with another 47 percent rating it as good. Community college students are about twice as likely to assess the experience as excellent compared to their four-year peers.
  • The main process changes noticed by students who went through admissions during COVID (n=1,222) are pandemic-specific financial assistance (30 percent), SAT/ACT-optional policies (17 percent) and waived application fees (13 percent). Fifty-eight percent of these students would most like to see higher ed permanently waive application fees; other popular responses are more lenient tuition-refund policies, more robust virtual tours, test-optional policies, and more lenient enrollment deposit–refund policies.

Read on for additional survey results, as well as insights about trends seen and what college officials can do to better support students throughout the admissions and enrollment life cycles.

Apply Now, Decide Later?

Olivia Broderick, who was a high school junior in the Boston area when COVID shutdowns arrived, had compiled a list of potential colleges throughout the country. While traditional college tours were out, “my list stayed the same,” says Broderick, now a first-year student (and tour guide) at University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The disruption to her high school career wound up making her want to be farther from home for college, which admissions experts see as not the most common decision but not uncommon, either. Broderick wound up applying to nine institutions and chose Madison the following spring, after a self-guided campus tour. “We’re right on a lake, a huge, beautiful lake—and the city is right on the lake,” she says. “You have, like, a nature side of campus and then a city side. It was the perfect balance for me.”

Two-thirds of respondents to the Student Voice survey applied to between one and five colleges, with students who anticipate a 2025 graduation being nearly twice as likely as others to have applied to six to 10 institutions. While many would expect that six-to-10 grouping to be more dominant, Common App data show the average number of applications per student as of Feb. 15 was 5.6 institutions. That’s slightly up from 5.46 in 2021 and 5.28 in 2020.

International students often apply to many colleges, notes Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common App. In the Student Voice survey, international students studying in the U.S. are most likely to have applied to six to 10 colleges; they were five times as likely as the full sample to have applied to between 11 and 15 colleges.

As for the lower number of colleges most applied to, part of that could be attributed to the popularity of early decision, says Richard Weissbourd, the faculty director of Making Caring Common, a Harvard Graduate School of Education project that, a few months into the pandemic, organized a collective statement from more than 315 college admissions deans aimed at easing stress on college-bound students. “A lot of kids anchor early and are not really open to investigating seriously other options.”

The Student Voice survey, however, validates the emerging trend of students making a deposit to more than one institution. Of the 1,398 respondents whose institution(s) required a deposit, 24 percent deposited at two or more.

“Families are keeping options open longer,” says Ffiona Rees, chair of the board at the National Association for College Admission Counseling and deputy director for undergraduate admission at University of California, Los Angeles. “Those conversations may have been starting pre-pandemic.” During the past two admissions seasons, when “months were like years,” this action could be attributed to fall semester decision making on COVID being unknown until just prior, she notes.

Rickard concurs and points out the summer melt implications of double depositing. “For some institutions, you’re recruiting the class even after they’ve enrolled.”

Summer melt protections might include texting campaigns, which can generally be automated, to remind students of due dates, adds Rees.

For many decades, marketing strategy tended to be “a one-size-fits-all, take it or leave it” one, says Fox Troilo, managing director of the Higher Education Research Advisor team at Hanover Research. He suggests further study on why students deposit but don’t show up.

At Juniata College, an examination of the uptick in summer melt over the past two years uncovered “two salient factors that students who changed their mind were voicing—family issues and mental health,” says Jason Moran, vice president for enrollment. Prior-year prominent factors have been finances, distance from home and change in academic interests.

At institutions without enrollment-deposit requirements, a student listing the college on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, sending a high school transcript or directly communicating with the college can indicate that student being more likely to enroll. “It’s hard to determine at a community college,” says Morgan L. Rizzardi, director of admissions at Butler County Community College in Pennsylvania. “I want students to pick us as their first choice, but we can be their final choice, too.”

Her team will communicate with those who have shown interest but choose to attend elsewhere, such as to suggest taking a class there to transfer back to their institution.

Factors in the Final College Choice

Of the 26 factors listed in the survey as possible influences on the ultimate college decision, seven were selected by at least four in 10 respondents—three relating to academic program availability and quality, two relating to cost, and two relating to location and campus setting.

Earlier in the pandemic, with virtual learning as the norm, leaders at many colleges wondered if their market from which to draw students had opened considerably, says Troilo. But generally, even those who want to go away to college “kind of want to stay closer to home,” he says. “The geographic radius isn’t getting larger, at least not to the magnitude that some institutions were hoping for.” In other words, a nonelite Texas institution is unlikely to attract a student from Maine.

Rural locations, however, may have been preferable to many students. Juniata College, in rural Pennsylvania, for example, was still able to safely deliver in-person instruction for all of 2020–21, reports Moran.

With academic programs being key college choice components, Troilo believes it’ll be important moving forward to “highlight the strengths of academic programs and what the outcomes are for students of those programs. Institutions are not historically getting to that level of detail,” he says. Materials can include what companies graduates of specific programs usually go to, what percentage won jobs and what specific skills sets are taught.

Another conversation historically left out of admissions involves available mental health supports (or, more realistically, service limitations). “In almost every conversation, from the high school and the college sides, I keep hearing about mental health challenges,” says Rees. “Couple that with the stress around the application process, with academics and how students are performing, with students arriving on campus with supports that they need. This is not going to be going away any time soon.” Rees is not, however, seeing a shift toward students asking about such services, likely because “they generally assume colleges have got the support.”

Harvard’s Making Caring Common team is now considering how high school students can make better decisions about college selection. The work has included asking all adults in a high school to identify students with whom they have a caring, trusted relationship, as well as asking students to identify adults who are meaningful and important to them. “The idea is to find the adults kids are listening to and respect. We’ve giving those adults training in postsecondary planning. Other adults besides counselors can do the work,” says Weissbourd, noting after-school providers and custodians as less expected examples.

Majors and Transfers During COVID

Nearly nine in 10 Student Voice respondents arrived at college with a major in mind—and only four in 10 have changed course since beginning college. Rickard from Common App sees this as remarkable. “I’m from the era of undecided,” she says, adding that with the emphasis today on college-to-career preparation at secondary schools, students probably feel more pressure to identify an area of study early.

Although not all students may be plugged in to the reality that changing your major could make it difficult to graduate on time, that could be a factor in students sticking with their choice, says Ken Anselment, dean of admissions and financial aid at Lawrence University. “I wonder how many of them are students pursuing professional degrees in health, for example.”

Student Voice respondents are for the most part sticking with the institutions they chose. Four in 10 of those who have changed their minds about their intended major have somewhat or seriously considered transferring to a different college during the pandemic—compared to 32 percent of the full sample. Students are also more likely to have considered transfer if they double deposited prior to enrollment—38 percent. Racial group is a factor in transfer as well, with Black students being most likely to have thought about it, at 60 percent.

The pandemic has also solidified the need for strong articulation agreements between two- and four-year institutions. “We have more and more people coming to the table from four-year universities, not just state universities but private institutions, online schools, schools in other states,” says Rizzardi from Butler County. She knows many admissions colleagues from four-year institutions and is especially happy to see instances of those universities welcoming community college students to their athletic events and other campus life activities. “That’s what I love about this transformative time,” she says. “We’re all just looking at enrollment together.”

Admissions Gets Evaluated

More than seven in 10 Student Voice survey respondents rated their experience working with admissions as good or excellent.

That doesn’t surprise Rickard, who has noticed in working with Common App’s 900-plus college and university members that admissions professionals went from really caring to caring even more during COVID. “They were so sensitive to the individual dynamics that every student was experiencing,” she says. “It’s a tribute to the profession.”

Troilo says the ratings might be attributed to mandates from top administration to go above and beyond, with students noticing and appreciating that.

Admissions offices at public colleges and community colleges tended to be seen in a more positive light than those at private and four-year colleges. Rizzardi says that may relate to community colleges generally having lower staffing levels. “We really get to know the students we’re working with on a deeper level.” Her team has done a lot of texting—manually, from a divvied-up list of students who have fallen out of the process.

They are also aware that family members are potential students. “You may be talking to a student but also maybe recruiting a parent. You have no clue,” she says.

Responses to the survey’s open-ended question about how the admissions process could improve indicate that many students believe the admissions office sets tuition rates. So perhaps some of the fair or poor ratings reflect anger at the price of college.

“It’s one of the things often not realized,” says Rickard. “The admissions office is often caught in the middle of institutional policy, board and presidential mandates and decisions, and then the students they are translating that to.”

Another barrier to admissions customer service levels is staffing. “Some colleges, especially with test optional being in place, have seen applications just balloon,” says Anselment. “Since they’re not necessarily ramping up staffing, it makes it harder to give the kind of service you hang your hat on.” At Lawrence, he adds, staffing has stayed the same, but “the edges between work and life becoming increasingly blurry” have given the team opportunities to be more responsive. “The challenge for us is making sure we’re preserving the energy of our teams as much as possible.”

Student employees can often be found in admissions offices, but at least one survey respondent views their presence negatively. “Part-time employees in high-turnover positions means that if I have a question or a problem, no one knows anything,” wrote the student, who attends a public university in the Midwest. “Email response is either delayed or nonexistent.”

Preventing admissions officers’ emotional burnout has become important as applicants share pandemic traumas. “Everyone has described a much greater level of emotional impact from reading the essays and hearing the stories, particularly of students from Black and brown communities, about the impact the pandemic has had on them,” says Alexander from Rochester. “We’ve tried to save and create space for our team to share and deal with the emotional weight of that”—including physical space, as working from home part-time is now allowed.

“The best [essays] bring some tears,” Alexander adds, “but in the end, they’re tears of hope and let you see the inspiration and opportunity that bringing these students into our campuses will provide. Our community will get better because of them.”

Pandemic and Post-Pandemic Processes

A COVID opportunity for admissions offices has involved re-examining application requirements. “How many of the things that colleges ask for do we ask for because that’s what the really good schools ask for and we want to look like that?” asks Anselment. He refers to requiring letters of recommendation, which can be a barrier for applicants, as “my own personal ax to grind.”

The Student Voice survey asked students about what admissions process changes they’re aware of happening due to COVID-19 as well as what changes they’re like to see implemented permanently. Waived application fees emerged as the top desire. “One student [in the survey] called it a money grab, but it’s an access issue,” says Anselment.

“Everything has to be a little bit easier,” says Troilo. “I’m in the camp of students looking for a little more leniency as they try to weigh different options.” While he recognizes the need for institutions to plan, they’re going to wind up with fewer students if they’re not flexible, he adds.

Anselment would have expected more students to call for permanent test-optional policies, “given how we, on the college side and on the secondary school side, are advocating so fiercely for minimizing their importance,” he says.

In an August 2021 survey of 206 admissions officials, conducted by Hanover Research for Inside Higher Ed, more than 95 percent had adopted test-optional or test-blind policies for the current admissions cycle, and three-quarters of respondents favored continuing test optional indefinitely. Among Common App member institutions surveyed by the organization, 55 percent required standardized test scores in 2019–20, while just 5 percent required them in 2021–22.

Broderick is in favor of the trend. “I’m an OK test taker, but I’m not amazing,” she says, noting that she applied to more institutions than she’d originally intended in part because of test-optional policies.

Of course, dropping SAT/ACT requirements means taking a big step in the direction of more holistic admissions decision making, even as higher ed works out what exactly that looks like. “Holistic admissions seems to have a lot of wind in its sails,” says Weissbourd. He is working with Common App on rethinking cognitive and noncognitive assessments, with an equity focus.

The idea is to determine what other information is needed to review applications without test scores, says Rickard. “How do you do something that’s not going to create more burden for students? Love them or leave them, standardized tests were widely accepted.”

One student at a public university in California expressed concern about leaving behind test requirements: “The removal of test scores was stupid. Stop calling the review process holistic. A few paragraphs, a high school transcript and some extracurriculars tell you next to nothing about what a student is like.”

Rochester has been strongly encouraging applicants to schedule an interview, which in Alexander’s opinion can greatly enhance holistic admissions. Since offering them virtually, the university has been able to engage a record number of alumni interviewers, and a broader socioeconomic range of students is taking advantage of the chance to arrange a meeting.

Anselment sees promise in the way the pandemic accelerated changes that “we knew colleges needed to make.” When an entire system must pivot, systemic change is easier.

He also holds close something a colleague noted at the height of the pandemic: “Because this was affecting everybody—everybody making [admissions] decisions, everybody who was applying—there was more empathy over the past couple of cycles than I suspect we’ve ever seen before. I hope that won’t wane.”

Next Monday, check back in to Student Voice for more student admissions perspective, with a focus on how virtual and in-person tours have been evolving.