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New Snapshot of College-Admissions Process

More students are applying to an increasing number of colleges, while acceptance rates are slightly down, a report released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling today reveals.

The 2011 State of College Admission by the Arlington, Va.-based education association, finds that 73 percent of colleges reported an increase in applications for fall 2010 over the previous year. Even as the number of high school graduates declines, more nontraditional students are seeking higher education, the report found.

After remaining stable for three years, the average acceptance rate at four-year colleges and universities declined by 1 percentage point to 65.5 percent. The yield rate—the percentage of all admitted students that actually enroll—dropped from 43 percent to 41 percent. This is likely linked to the larger volume of applications, according to NACAC officials.

Of the freshman class of 2010, nearly 77 percent applied to three or more colleges —an increase of 16 percentage points over the last 20 years. Twenty-five percent submitted seven or more applications. The ease of applying electronically contributed to this rise, said NACAC's Melissa Clinedinst, assistant director of research, in a webinar this afternoon. Four-year colleges received an average of 85 percent of their applications online, up from 80 percent in 2009 and 58 percent in 2006.

With this influx of applications, colleges are using various strategies to manage enrollment. One of the biggest surprises in this year's report, said Clinedinst, was the increased use of wait lists; 48 percent of NACAC survey respondents indicated using a wait list in 2010, up from 39 percent in 2009. Yet, just 28 percent of students were admitted off the wait lists on average last year while 34 percent were the previous year.

Concerns over wait lists as a strategy to deal with the uncertainty of freshman-class numbers prompted NACAC to appoint a committee earlier this year to study the timing, transparency, and financial considerations of using wait lists. The group is to report back with recommendations to the membership in 2012, said Clinedinst.

The number of students who accepted based on "early decision," an early binding commitment to attend, was up at only 38 percent of colleges with ED policies, down from the previous three years when about half of colleges reported increases. The gap between ED and regular-decision acceptance narrowed considerably in this year's survey. For the fall 2010 admission cycle, colleges with early-decision policies reported a 7 percentage-point gap in acceptance rates between ED applicants and the overall applicant pool (57 percent vs. 50 percent). For the fall 2009 admission cycles, the gap was 15 percentage points.

For "early action," which is nonbinding, 72 percent of schools reported an increase in early-action applications; last year, 68 percent did.

The top factors for admissions remained stable, with grades in college-preparatory courses, strength of curriculum, standardized admission test scores, and overall high school grade point average as the most important. Admissions counselors said they were increasingly looking at students' demonstrated interest in an institution, which may help them sort through applicants most likely to attend in the ever-growing pool.

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