A silver lining in the hardest year for college admissions

It was a crummy year to be a high school senior.

Not only did this year’s graduating class finish its final year in a pandemic that canceled most of its milestone moments, but those students also applied to colleges in the hardest admissions cycle ever for highly selective colleges.

This week, Ivy League institutions released their admissions decisions. And sure enough, the headlines about plunging, ridiculously low admit rates (less than 4% at Columbia and Harvard) dominated the news.

A tiny sliver of the country’s students are educated at these places. More broadly, colleges and universities that accept fewer than 50% of applicants also saw an increase in applications. Part of this dramatic rise can be attributed to this year’s test-optional policies that permitted students to apply without submitting ACT or SAT scores. Also, far more students were stuck at home during lockdowns without extracurricular activities competing for time spent filling out college applications.

But these aren’t the main reasons why it was the hardest year ever to get in, according to Brian Taylor, managing partner at Ivy Coach, a New York-based private college consulting firm. Around 20% of last year’s admitted students at these schools took a gap year, meaning there were fewer seats available in a year with unprecedented application numbers, he said.

Every year, there are hordes of exceptionally qualified, dedicated students denied admission to the most elite colleges. This year, many of these students may have also been shut out of or wait-listed at the next tier of schools — those in the top 20 of the infamous ranking guides.

Lots of high-achieving, talented students got hit with the bad luck of bad timing.

Meanwhile, less selective schools, those that accept more than 50% of applicants, and community colleges with open enrollment have seen significant declines in applicants. Again, the reasons are multifold. Time magazine cited sobering statistics: Anywhere from 7.7 million to 10 million adults canceled plans to take postsecondary classes last fall because of financial constraints related to the pandemic, according to estimates from U.S. Census Bureau surveys conducted biweekly since August. Last year, the number of high school graduates who immediately went on to college in fall declined 11.4% in high-poverty schools compared with the previous year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That number dropped 2.9% at low-poverty high schools.

In addition to potential students and their families losing jobs and savings, they also lost critical social support due to lockdowns. Many struggled with virtual learning and needed in-person guidance to navigate the application and financial aid process.

There is, however, a potential silver lining to this bleak year of admissions for students.

Applications from first-generation students to large, more selective private colleges increased by 20%, according to data released by the Common App. There was also an increase in applications from low-income students and students of color to selective colleges.

So, will this be the year that selective institutions admit a significantly greater number of students from these historically marginalized groups? Will they share data on acceptance rates for those who submitted optional standardized test scores versus those who did not? Have colleges and universities taken advantage of these unprecedented circumstances to come closer to their missions of closing the gaps in higher education, or will they end up replicating the privileges and inequities in the status quo? It will be revealing to see whether these institutions embrace transparency in showing the progress we would expect to see in these metrics. In a year that changed the life trajectories of so many millions of students, let’s hope these gatekeepers can provide a silver lining.


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