College Admissions Decisions 2009: Economy Trumps Demographics

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High school seniors graduating in 2009 represent the largest group of students to apply to college. While 2009 was supposed to be the most competitive year for college admissions, what is unequivocal is that the economic meltdown trumped demographics. The bigger factor this year is the changing economic realities for families and the concern by deans of admission about the impact of these changes on actual anticipated enrollment, “melt” [students who commit to attend who then change their minds] and “yield” [percentage of admitted students who enroll]. Moreover, the increasing economic uncertainties were unfolding at the same time that students were deciding to which colleges to apply.

Colleges, which are tuition driven institutions, rely on tuition as a major source of revenue. Each year, they strive to meet their targeted enrollments. Being below enrollment would be very costly. Conversely, since many colleges are residential communities, finding themselves above targeted enrollments would strain facilities and present additional problems. Thus, each year colleges establish specific enrollment and class size targets and apply their admissions initiatives and financial aid resources to meet those targets.

Colleges, facing an unprecedented melt of early decision applicants and fearful that additional students who had said they would enroll would find that they could no longer afford to do so, were increasing their financial aid budgets to try to gage and meet the unanticipated higher need that was evolving. In these economic times, with increasing concern that many families might prefer that their kids enroll in less expensive public institutions, many private schools were aggressively using merit money to entice kids without financial need to enroll. And as had been the case for a number of years and in a way that seems counter intuitive (in a sort of reverse supply and demand model), many schools that appeal to a national market were going after those students who they wanted, not only admitting them but also then working hard to entice those that they admitted to enroll, thus ensuring the yield that they all covet.

Across the country my colleagues were seeing these trends and the successful admissions of early decision applicants, even those with some (though not huge amounts of) financial need. It was evident to many of us that colleges were admitting early applicants, those who applied under both binding early decision plans and non binding early action plans, and going with a sure thing early on. While it may also be a function of the type of school (whether highly selective, private, public, regional, etc.), it also is clear that many schools have actually over enrolled with regular admission plan applicants to hedge the melt that they anticipate will occur as more students determine that they cannot afford to attend. Concomitantly, many schools have developed large wait lists that they intend to go to in numbers greater than in the past to help them manage their enrollment and fill out their classes after the official national candidates reply date of May 1.

For schools that are not need blind (those that may consider financial need in their admissions determination), students’ ability to pay full tuition helped. But, the amount of need a student qualifies for is often a factor. (A student “costing” a school $40,000 per year is very different than a student “costing” $8000 per year.) Also, having financial need always matters most for those applicants who are on the margin rather than for those who are clearly either stellar within the applicant pool and to be admitted or weak within the applicant pool and to be rejected.

Parents and students often think admission decisions are all about the student and her or his qualifications in relation to the criteria set by particular colleges. The reality is that it is about so much more. It is driven by institutional imperatives and enrollment management objectives, such as maintaining position in the college rankings, enrolling students from every state, or the need for an oboist for the orchestra or a strong art history applicant in a school known for the study of international relations. In this current admissions cycle, it was also driven by macroeconomic conditions that altered the playing field.

As has been increasingly the case over recent years, colleges weren’t necessarily always admitting the strongest students within their applicant pools. Instead, they were extending offers of admission to those qualified applicants who they viewed as most likely to accept and enroll. So, a student I know gets admitted to Yale University but is rejected from Tufts University. We used to think it was about strength of qualifications. In fact, of late and increasingly, it is a function of that and the enrollment management models that predict the likelihood of a student attending if admitted. And, in the current climate, economic considerations on the part of both the applicant and the colleges have taken on larger importance than could have been anticipated.

As a college admissions officer from a liberal arts college recently put it, “We had more students than ever to choose from this year, but the economy means we also have no clue as to which ones are going to show up come fall. I pray about it every day.”

Published in The Loop ( April 28, 2009.

The CEP is the Certified Educational Planner which Jane holds, and is the mark of distinction for independent educational consultants and high school counselors.

Jane Hoffman is a Certified Educational Planner (CEP). The CEP is the mark of distinction for independent educational consultants and high school counselors. It reflects the highest level of professional achievement and signifies extensive knowledge and commitment to the profession and to providing the highest quality of service to students and families. It is conferred only after demonstration of expanded institutional and professional knowledge.

CEPIECANACACJane Hoffman is an active member of a number of professional associations in college admissions and counseling, including the American Institute of Certified Educational Planners (AICEP), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Jane is a graduate of IECA’s Practices and Principles Training Institute and adheres to IECA’s Principles of Good Practice. Since it is important to remain current, Jane frequently attends national conferences and participate in professional exchanges that provide the latest information on admission policies, practices, trends and developments. Jane regularly visit colleges and meets with admissions officers to learn about each school’s culture, educational programs, institutional priorities and admissions practices. Ongoing professional development activities also include taking courses online, completing webinars and consulting with colleagues.