This past fall, there was considerable concern about decreases in college application for the fall of 2021. In November, the Common App reported an “alarming” decline, particularly among lower-income and first generation students. Coming on top of a 3.6% decline in undergraduate enrollment for the fall of 2020, the drop in applications was a source of considerable anxiety. As of Nov. 2, the Common App had received 8% fewer applications than in the prior year, 60% of member schools were reporting declines, and schools that had not waived test requirements were– needless to say– really struggling to find applicants.

So, will there be a class of 2025? More recent data points to a resounding Yes. While early decision and early application lagged previous years, by the end of January applications overall were up about 10% compared with a year ago. However, the overall increase masks some underlying trends that are less pretty.

Applications are up the most at selective colleges– not just the Ivy Leagues, but the “more selective” category as a whole (schools that admit less than half of applicants)– were up 17% compared with a year ago. Less selective large public schools also saw increases in applicants. Small schools– public regardless of selectivity and less-selective private schools– were the big losers in terms of applicant numbers, with declines ranging from 1% to almost 5%.

The increase in applications at the selective schools seems to be driven by a number of factors:

  • Test-optional admissions
  • Concern about more selective admissions after record levels of deferrals by last year’s freshman class may have led high school students to apply to more schools. According to the Common App, this year saw a 9% increase in the application-per-applicant ratio
  • An increase in international applicants

At the same time, this year saw substantial declines in fee-waivers and in applications from first-generation students, as well as a 10% drop in FAFSA filings. The FAFSA filing declines were even more marked in Title I schools and those with high minority student bodies. All of which bodes poorly for education’s role in providing opportunities across society.

One likely outcome of all of this is that outside the very top tier of colleges, students and their families might find themselves in the driver’s seat when it comes to negotiating financial aid at the school of their choice. That’s because many schools will be admitting the same students and regardless of how many applications they submit or acceptances they receive, each student will only end up enrolling in one. Many are predicting significant challenges for yield management in admissions– predicting the number of students the school needs to admit in order to fill its freshman class with acceptances– due to the higher application numbers. To oversimplify that, if a school normally has a 50% admissions yield, it needs to admit 20 students to fill 10 slots in the freshman class. But if the increase in applications it received stems largely from an increase in the number of applications each student is submitting, then the school might only see a 40% yield this year and thus would need to admit 25 students to fill those 10 slots. If it only admitted 20, it might end up with 8 students instead of 10. Multiply that by a school trying to fill 5,000 slots and you can see the likelihood that many schools will be actively courting their admitted students and perhaps willing to shell out some extra dollars to get students enrolled.