Behind the drop in college admission rates

Plus a primer on the increasingly complicated financial aid and application processes

Jun 1, 2014 @ 12:01 am

By Troy Onink

When college admissions decisions were finalized this spring, Stanford University, one of the most prestigious universities in the world, admitted a record low percentage of students, a mere 5.9% of its 42,167 applicants. Harvard, Yale, MIT, Princeton, Duke, Columbia and the University of Chicago had admit rates of 10% or less.

That means that the most selective colleges in the U.S. denied admission to 90% of the best and the brightest students in the world.

In addition to admitting a record low percentage of applicants, elite schools, as well as other colleges and universities, are seeing record application numbers. The University of California, Los Angeles, received a record 86,000 applications, the most of any college or university.

While the number of college applications has soared, enrollment as a whole began a downturn in 2011 that was predicted on the basis of demographics. Declining enrollment, combined with rising costs, has created three categories of college admissions:

1. Elite colleges that have brand and pricing power, and that will remain highly selective.

2. State universities that have lower sticker prices and generally steady enrollment.

3. Less-selective private colleges that are struggling to fill seats and are discounting their tuition an average 46% to do so.

If your client's child is admitted to one of the elite privates, the only aid available is based on financial need, because those schools don't offer academic merit aid. Good grades won't land the student or the family a dime of help.

The good news is that if a child accepted to an elite private demonstrates a need for financial aid, almost all those schools will fulfill 100% of the requirement. In addition, 90% to 100% of the assistance will be offered in the form of grants, with only a little work-study.

Less-selective private colleges, on the other hand, generally offer aid based on academic merit as well as financial need.

State universities have much smaller merit aid awards (generally $1,000 to $5,000) and tend to have less-favorable need-based aid awards than either category of private colleges. The sticker price is lower to start with, however, unless the student is going to a state university out of state (not a great idea from an affordability perspective).

Another significant change is the application process. Gone are the days when students applied to college in the winter or spring and learned of their fate within a few months.

Now, students who want a better shot at selective colleges may apply under early decision or early action — just two of the options with which your clients must acquaint themselves and that further complicate the college admission experience.

TERMS TO KNOW

Here are the terms with which you should familiarize yourself and your clients:

Early decision accept. You have agreed to go to that school. You have been admitted and must enroll. Withdraw other applications.

Accept. The student has been admitted and has until May 1 to decide to attend that school.

Defer. This is typically a result in an early process. The college has put off making a decision about a student pending further information (possibly about the applicant or about the application pool). Schools typically attempt to get you a final decision by April 1.

Deny. The college has decided not to admit the applicant. This should not be taken personally, as it can be the result of a number of factors beyond the student's control.

Wait list. The college doesn't know whether it will be able to admit the student. This offer is typically made before April 1, with students not getting a determination until after May 1 (although that can vary in individual cases).

Conditional admission. In general, college acceptances are predicated on a student's finishing high school at a particular performance level. Schools sometimes add requirements, however. For instance, a student may need to take a remedial summer course.

Guaranteed transfer. It is rare, but a college sometimes tells an applicant, “We will admit you as a sophomore as long as you do well during freshman year” elsewhere.

Deferring enrollment. Some colleges will let students put off enrollment for a year after admission to pursue an opportunity, including work, travel or a volunteer assignment. Deferment is usually not granted to attend another college.

Troy Onink (troy.onink@stratagee.com) is the chief executive of Stratagee Corp., which provides college planning approaches.

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