College apps surge even as enrollment declines

America's College Crisis

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(NewsNation) — As enrollment at higher education institutions continues to decline, the number of applications is surging at many colleges as prospective students cast a wider net and apply to more schools than years prior.

According to data from Common App — a single online application accepted by more than 1,000 colleges and universities — total first-year applications increased 21% from 2019-2020 to 2021-2022.

The recent uptick coincides with a years long upward trend, but it’s a pattern experts say has been accelerated by the pandemic.

“The era of test optional has now become much more prevalent and is going to stay, in many cases, moving forward,” said Kevin Krebs, the founder and managing partner of HelloCollege, an admissions counseling company.

During the pandemic, hundreds of universities waived standardized test requirements and many still haven’t brought them back. That’s given some prospective students a false sense of hope, said Krebs, with thousands of prospects submitting applications they otherwise might not have.

In 2019-2020, 76% of applicants using the Common App reported test scores, compared to just 48% this year.

That could be one of the reasons the rise in applications has been especially pronounced at both elite private schools and more selective public universities.

Harvard saw a record 61,220 applicants to its Class of 2026 — an 80% increase from just a decade ago. UCLA, which is the most applied-to four-year university in the country, shattered its previous record, receiving more than 149,700 freshman applications for fall 2022, about 10,000 more than the year before.

Facing reduced barriers to entry, high school graduates are applying to more schools than ever before.

Last year, the average incoming freshman applied to seven different schools, according to survey data from EAB, a consulting firm that specializes in education. That’s up from 5.8 applications per student in 2015.

But despite the surge in applications at many institutions, nationwide enrollment — the number of people who actually attend — continues to decline.

From 2010 to 2020, annual enrollment at postsecondary institutions has fallen more than 14% nationally, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In real terms, that’s four million less students compared to 10 years ago.

When the coronavirus hit, enrollment fell even further.

Postsecondary institutions have lost nearly 1.3 million students since Spring 2020, according to the latest figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Data suggests those losses are unevenly distributed.

Community colleges have been hit especially hard, losing more than 827,000 students since the start of the pandemic.

But experts say that decline isn’t cause for panic. In fact, it may be a sign Americans still have faith in a labor market that has remained resilient despite surging inflation.

“When the economy is strong there tends to be a lot of jobs for those people right out of high school or people who are just getting back into the labor market so community college enrollments tend to suffer,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents more than 1,700 colleges and universities.

Hartle pointed to a previous rise in community college enrollment that occurred during the great recession but subsequently declined once economic conditions started to improve, as one example.

Other factors — specifically a decline in domestic birth rates during the great recession — suggest enrollment figures may continue to fall in the coming years.

Nationally, the number of high school graduates is expected to peak in the mid 2020s before gradually declining through 2037, according to a report from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE).

The estimates show different parts of the country will feel the impact more than others. In the Northeast the number of high school graduates is expected to decrease by more than 12% between 2025 and 2037, compared to a 6.6% decline in the South.

If current graduation rates remain at the same 2019 levels when the data was collected, Illinois is projected to see the total number of high school graduates decline 24% from 2019 to 2037. In Connecticut the number of people graduating high school could decline by 18% by 2037, the WICHE report found.

It remains to be seen how Americans’ shifting beliefs in the importance of higher education could factor into enrollment numbers moving forward.

A July poll found only half of Americans think the economic benefits of a college education outweigh the costs.

Since 1980, the average price tag for undergraduate education has increased nearly 170%, while earnings for workers ages 22-27 have only gone up 19%, according to a 2021 report from Georgetown University.

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