Advice, News

Let’s Talk About Institutional Priorities

By Lea on April 26, 2022 0 Comments

The college admissions landscape has been drastically altered during the COVID pandemic, accelerating changes that were already underway. New data shows that college application numbers continue to grow and the percent of students admitted to the most selective schools continues to drop.

It helps to understand a bit of what is going on behind the scenes so you can make informed decisions, focus on your personal journey, and yes, reach high, while still maintaining realistic expectations and an open mind about the many colleges where you can thrive. 

With test optional and test free admissions and more students applying to more colleges, each college is focused on their yield (the rate at which students admitted will say “Yes!” to the school). Yield rates are used to predict housing needs, faculty and staff hiring, course offerings, and to manage the financial health of a university. Yield rates are often also part of college ranking formulas and can be used to protect and increase perceived or real selectivity.

Yield Protection: The act of restricting college admission because enrollment managers and/or predictive models suggest a student will not attend, if admitted, or because the college is focused on selecting students that meet their institutional priorities. 

What you, the student, can do is to focus on engaging with different resources in your college research and be serious about finding several good fit schools where you can be happy and thrive. At the same time, by being active in your research and really understanding why a school is a good fit for you, you increase the chance a school also sees you as a good match and predicts that you are likely to attend. Some ways to engage and demonstrate interest are: signing up for email newsletters, following a school or academic department on social media, doing an interview, visiting a campus, and meeting/contacting your admissions rep. (Ask me for a copy of my engagement tracking sheet if you do not yet have one.)

Demonstrated Interest: Engagement with the colleges you are researching and applying to so you know enough about them and they know enough about you. In essence, colleges want you to decide where you wish to attend school before applying.

Early Decision: This is an application admissions plan offered at many selective colleges that allows you to select the Early Decision (ED) option. Colleges admit a higher number of students from the ED applicant pool because it protects their yield and helps them build a predictable class that can begin to meet their institutional priorities. In most cases, ED applicants submit an early application (around Nov. 1) and sign a binding agreement to attend the university if admitted – not a decision to take lightly! (This is not to be confused with Early Action (EA) which is non-binding.) While submitting an Early Decision application is not a possible or desirable choice for everyone, it has become the ultimate way to show love for a school, when available. 

Hopefully, you can start to see why predicting yield is an institutional priority, even one that can ultimately trump the admission of an outstanding applicant. Institutional priorities have nothing to do with individual applicants and everything to do with the fact that colleges are a business. Below, I share a list of some of the most notable institutional priorities with inspiration from a list recently developed among a Facebook group of college consultant colleagues – Thank you, Sylvia Borgo and Aly Beaumont, for getting the conversation started and sharing thoughts! 

Here are some of the top priorities that impact college admissions decisions:

A) Manage enrollment

During the pandemic, predictive models of enrollment were no longer effective. In recent cycles, schools over enrolled and experienced a housing crunch or shortage of seats in class, while others under enrolled and were glad they had a solid wait list. And to give more recent context, UCLA was the most applied to university in the country these past two admissions cycles, receiving almost 150,000 applications in November 2021 with the goal of admitting around 15,000 students to ultimately fill their 6,500+ freshman spots; this means an admission offer to roughly 1 out of every 10 applicants. And, here’s a good example of how over enrollment in one year changed the admissions landscape at Boston University.  To control enrollment a college might admit a large percentage of their class ED I or ED II.  Here are some recent examples from the Class of 2022:

Barnard accepted 62% of its incoming class of 2026 during the Early Decision (ED) round. 

University of Pennsylvania accepted approximately 51% of its class from ED applicants. 

American University accepted ⅓ or its freshman admits from ED applicants. You can find more ED data collected by College Kickstart.

With these stats, it simply becomes way harder to get admitted in the Regular Decision round. 

B) Balance budgets

Ensuring the correct number of students enroll each fall is critical to the financial health of each institution. Colleges are focused on net tuition revenue and have to manage what can be competing priorities:

  • accepting full pay students.
  • prioritizing Pell-eligible students. 
  • offering the majority of students some type of tuition discount. (Remember that private college pricing can be akin to airline tickets – the person sitting next to you is often paying a different price.)
  • serving in state students at public universities. 
    • Ex: the state of North Carolina mandates that any UNC campus only enroll a maximum of 18% of its incoming class coming from out of state, while UT-Austin is limited to 10% out of state/international.
  • welcoming out of state students paying higher tuition rates, without over enrolling them.
  • offering spots to legacy students, where this is still legal (those who have an alumni in the family). 

C) Admit students with specialized skills: athletes, musicians, vocalists, debaters, actors, or those with other talents, etc.

Enrolling a cello player and/or recruiting a skilled goalie on the soccer team are examples of goals that may play into admissions decisions. These stereotypical examples are meant to illustrate that students with specialized skills and experiences do help meet institutional priorities.

D) Fill Academic Colleges, Programs, and Majors 

Impacted majors attract more students than there is space for and universities need to fill all academic programs. “Impaction” can lead to highly qualified students not being admitted due to choice of major.  The field of business is now right up there with engineering and computer science as the most competitive programs for admission. Furthermore, some programs are growing while others may be shrinking and faculty positions may be unfilled in a certain program that affects enrollment.

The Cal State campuses are forthcoming with their list of impacted majors and campuses. In this case, they seek to meet their institutional priority of filling a broad range of programs by making it very clear to applicants that space is limited for some campuses and some areas of study.

E) Craft a diversified class of students

Colleges seek students with diversified interests in and out of the classroom who will contribute to the vibrancy and academic depth on campus. They seek students from diverse backgrounds, geographic locations, religious faiths, and those who will bring a diversity in lived experiences, race and cultural heritages, and sexual orientation to campus. As an example, the UC campuses have an expressed goal of increasing the number of first generation students and low income students who have the preparation and academic profile to succeed on their campus. The University of California is, at least in part, an economic and educational engine designed to serve upward mobility and the future prosperity of our state.

G) Prioritize rankings and maximize their place on US News and World Report. This is part of a larger conversation and probably best left for another day, but here is an insightful op-ed in the LA Times from the former President of Reed College. He offers some food for thought on the subjectiveness of the rankings. 

The reality is that even if a student demonstrates why they are a great fit for a school by excelling in academics and being well prepared to do the work, pursuing authentic extracurricular activities, writing stand out essays, and showing how they will be a contributing member of the campus community, institutional priorities alone may determine whether or not a student is offered a spot. 

Here’s my advice for students:

Do what you can, do you.

Be authentic.

Make the most of the opportunities available to you in high school.

Be open to exploring a range of colleges, get to know what they have in common and what differentiates them, and be able to articulate why the ones you apply to are a good fit for you.

Commit to applying to a balanced list of schools that ensure you have great choices to choose from.

These are the things that you can control. And remember, it’s not the name or ranking of the school that matters but what you do when you get there!

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