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Rise in College Applications Raises Concerns About Access

A report released today chronicles how more applications than ever are pouring into admissions offices at the nation's colleges. The reasons behind the trend, however, are more complex than just the notion of hyper-competitive students sending out multiple applications.

Overall, there are just more students aspiring to college, and many institutions are fueling the influx with widespread recruiting materials that pump up interest in their schools.

That growing pool of interest is also raising questions and concerns about access to higher education, the National Association for College Admission Counseling writes in "Putting the College Admission 'Arms Race' in Context."

The big findings of the report:

• From 2001 to 2008, average annual increases in the median number of applications at public four-year institutions increased about 6 percent a year, or 47 percent growth overall. The increase was 8 percent a year at private not-for-profit institutions for an overall 70 percent increase over this period.


• The greatest growth in the number of applications has taken place at less
selective for-profit and not-for-profit private four-year colleges and universities, where many students are commuters.

• The proportion of ethnic minorities and lower-income students submitting applications to more than one institution has increased in this decade, suggesting more competition for local commuting students.

• Across all sectors of four-year institutions—public, private for-profit, and
private not-for-profit—acceptance rates declined from 2001 to 2008 by a median of 7 percentage points, or an annual decrease of about 1 percentage point. The most selective schools reported the largest increases in the percentage of students rejected.

The report suggests that the increase in applications at community colleges, for-profit institutions, and less-selective public institutions is the result of more high school graduates pursuing higher education, rather than the result of students submitting multiple applications. Also, there are more first-generation Hispanic high school graduates applying to institutions in these sectors.

The story is likely different, however, at more selective public and private not-for-profit institutions. The surge in applications at these schools is likely because of the ever-increasing number of students who are applying to more institutions, the report found. This increase is leading to more students not being admitted and, in all likelihood, lower yields.

The findings in the report led the authors to raise several concerns about the cost and impact of the process on students and institutions.

With the rise in applications for admission, more colleges are rejecting more students and becoming more selective. The report suggests this could close doors of opportunity for more low-income, first-generation students in all sectors, as these students typically are less certain of their academic goals, received less rigorous college preparation, and have more difficulty negotiating the college bureaucracies.

Applying to more schools only to be rejected by more institutions also makes the application process more costly for students and schools, the report notes. While applying to more schools may give students more options for the best fit or the best financial aid package, the report shows growing evidence that financial aid investments are outstripping investments in teaching and learning in the classroom, ultimately canceling out the students' advantage.

Four-year sector colleges and universities are spending more resources than necessary on recruiting students, the report states. The reason institutions are not spending more money on financial aid is not insufficient applicants. Strategies often direct limited aid dollars to students already likely to enroll in and graduate from college.

The report concludes that public two-year institutions are grossly underfunded, and making four-year institutions more efficient will not offset the growing unwillingness of states to fund public higher education as more students enroll.

"Until political will matches the political rhetoric regarding the need for a more educated workforce, we are unlikely to see substantive improvements in the enrollment and graduation rates for two-year colleges," the report noted.

To make necessary changes, the authors suggest more long-term research on college admission is needed in all sectors and consideration should be made to requiring all community colleges and for-profit institutions to submit admission data.

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