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Students walking on the University of Southern California campus
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Call it the college admissions season of contradictions.

At some selective campuses, plummeting admit rates during the 2021-22 college admissions cycle have made students' chances even more unpredictable. At the same time, many smaller colleges and public institutions desperately want more applicants, worrying they won't attract enough students to fill their class.

Neither colleges nor students are entirely sure what fall 2021 is going to look like. While students are optimistic about the possible return to in-person instruction in the fall, many wonder how changes to standardized test policies and deferrals from last year have affected their ability to get into their top-choice schools. Colleges are less sure than ever about who will show up on campus come September.

“The most selective institutions are getting many more applications than they normally do, which is only going to make them appear to be even more selective,” says David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC).

The more applicants a college has, the lower its admit rate will be. Dartmouth, for instance, reported a 6.17% admit rate, the lowest in its history, with a record 28,000 students applying. The University of Southern California’s (USC) admit rate dropped from 16% to 12% with an applicant pool of 70,000, up 20% from the year before.

However, Hawkins says that it is a misperception that college admissions is more competitive overall than it has been in the past.

“When you focus on that narrow band of very selective colleges, yes, they are getting more selective,” he says. “But they represent a very small percentage of the overall population of four year colleges.”

Hawkins stresses that the most selective institutions only account for a handful of the 4,000 higher education institutions in the United States. For the last ten years, the average acceptance rate for four-year colleges is 65%, he says. And for students who haven’t submitted applications or are unhappy with where they’ve been admitted, there are still plenty of colleges with open spots.

Test-optional policies help drive a surge in applications

The surge in applications is driven by a number of factors, experts say. After a year of remote learning and with many colleges announcing in-person instruction in the fall, students have pent-up demand to leave the nest.

But one of the primary drivers is that hundreds of colleges have stopped requiring standardized test scores for admission. Test optional and test blind policies — where colleges consider SAT and ACT scores only if the student submits them or sometimes not at all — have encouraged more students to apply to schools they might not have previously considered.

Gianna Jirak, a senior at C.D. Hylton Senior High School in Woodbridge, Virginia, applied early decision to New York University, where she plans to study journalism. She earned a 1200 on the SATs and decided not to submit her test scores. She says the test optional policies encouraged her classmates to apply to more competitive schools.

“The tests have always been a barrier to students, especially students of color, feeling like they could go to big private institutions,” she says.

Jirak isn’t sure she would have gotten into NYU before the change in testing policy. “While I have faith in my grades and extracurriculars, my SAT score would have never allowed me to get in,” she says.

Elissa Salas, CEO of College Track, a non-profit organization focused on college access, is encouraged by many colleges’ moves towards test optional and test blind policies since she says that makes the process more equitable for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. She describes the current admissions cycle as “more fair” rather than “more competitive.”

While the number of spots for students on campus might stay the same, who colleges are admitting looks different than in previous years. Many colleges are reporting the most diverse first-year class that they’ve ever admitted.

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, “what we're seeing with test optional is that more low-income students are being admitted, because this negates the bias of the SAT/ACT test based on family income and circumstances,” says Courtney McAnuff, vice chancellor for enrollment management.

Another unknown in the current admissions cycle is the role that deferrals might play in how many students from the high school class of 2021 might be admitted. Many colleges were more flexible with deferral policies last fall due to the pandemic, with some institutions like Harvard and Stanford reporting that around 20% of their 2020 admits deferred.

Hawkins says that the impact deferrals have is going to be very dependent on the institution. Some colleges might have an “enrollment bulge” where they temporarily increase capacity and some institutions might welcome more first-year students to offset enrollment declines from current students. At others, deferrals “could have the effect of reducing capacity in the first year class,” meaning it’s harder for applicants this year to get a spot.

McAnuff said that at Rutgers, 500 students who graduated in 2020 deferred admission until fall 2021. “As we determine which of those 500 are going to enroll, it does reduce the available spaces for the ‘21 students,” he says.

What options are left for undecided students?

Despite the record application numbers, colleges aren’t sure who will accept their offers of admission, so officials say they are hedging their bets with longer waitlists.

But McAnuff does not advise waiting to make a decision in hope that a student will get off a waitlist.

“I certainly wouldn't turn down a school by May 1, if you have a valid offer to another school that you want,” he says. “It's going to be very hard to get into ‘reach schools’ this year because they've had an abundance of applications.”

Most colleges seem to be maintaining May 1 as decision day, the traditional deadline for admitted students to let a college know if they plan to enroll. But some colleges may still be lenient if students ask for an extension.

“I suspect what's going to happen this year is that the deadline is going to at least be flexible in many cases,” Hawkins, with NACAC, says.

College Track, which serves a population of largely low-income and disadvantaged students, uses a “best fit model” when advising its students on what college to choose. But there are some general tips all students can use.

“Go to a school where you're going to leave with less debt than the national average, go to a school that has higher than average graduation rates, and make sure that there are support services on campus,” Salas says.

For students who haven’t yet been accepted anywhere they want to attend, keep an eye out at the beginning of May, when NACAC will be publishing a list of colleges that are still accepting applications after the May 1 deadline on its website. Hawkins also recommends looking at community colleges, which may be particularly attractive given the ongoing economic uncertainty.

While there are still many unknowns, the current admissions cycle nevertheless looks more like “normal” years compared to 2020.

“Last year there was not only uncertainty about where kids are going and schools being closed, but [also] a lot more financial uncertainty than we're seeing here now that the economy's opening up a little bit more,” Salas says. “So generally, the trends look more comparable to a regular admissions year, with the exception that we do have students who are casting a wider net than before.”

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