Admissions & Enrollment Trends From the 2023 IECA Conference
For those of you following our social media, you will know that we just spent the first two weeks of May touring colleges across the Pacific Northwest and participating in the Independent Educational Consultants Association Spring 2023 Conference in Seattle, Washington. This blog post will highlight high-level trends in admissions that we learned about during the IECA conference this year.
During this conference, we were fortunate enough to attend several sessions discussing trends in college admissions from the perspective of leaders in college admission offices across the country. While I believe this information to be valuable to students, families, and other educational professionals, there is a delicate balance between sharing information and still providing professional anonymity for professionals to make these kinds of informative and candid conversations possible. In order to maintain this delicate balance, I will be providing some general descriptions of the professionals' job titles and institutions. I will also avoid using any direct quotes and instead focus on summarizing the major trends from these sessions. Below is a general summary of the professionals and institutions from these sessions.
In total we heard from eight different institutions:
These institutions represented several regions including the West Coast, Pacific Northwest, Southeast, and Midwest.
The student population across these eight schools ranged from approximately 1,100 to 13,000.
The acceptance rates across these eight institutions ranged from approximately 7% to 88%.
Endowments at these institutions ranged from approximately 180 million dollars to 10 billion dollars.
Amongst the eight institutions, we heard from representatives in the following positions:
Vice President for Enrollment
Vice President for Admission and Financial Aid
Vice President and Dean of Admission & Financial Aid
Vice Provost for University Enrollment Affairs & Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid
Dean of Undergraduate Admission
Associate Vice President for Admissions
Senior Associate Director of Admission
I’ve divided the most notable trends into the following topics:
Undergraduate Admissions Trends:
Several institutions saw a recent increase in international applications after a significant drop due to the COVID pandemic.
One institution saw their international application pool double in size.
One institution saw an increasing trend in applications from Africa.
Several institutions indicated efforts to diversify their international recruitment in multiple countries to create a wider and safer marketing strategy.
Several institutions reported differing trends for geographic diversity within the USA.
Some institutions reported an increasing number of in-state applications. Most of them theorized that this desire to stay closer to home was due to concerns and cautions generated by COVID. Other institutions saw an increase in in-state applications, but did not increase the amount of in-state students admitted.
Institutions with lower acceptance rates had no notable/specific state-based domestic recruitment targets and noted a de-emphasis on marketing around representation of all 50 states.
Almost all institutions with a longstanding or newly adopted Early Decision (ED) deadline saw an increase in their ED applications.
Despite the increase in ED applications, many institutions echoed the point that the number of students waiting to make decisions until May 1st was increasing.
Almost all institutions saw an increase in test-optional applications, and some reported increases in test-optional submission by more than 20%.
Almost all institutions indicated an increase in discussions about mental health in their application pools. In some application pools, admission offices were seeing mentions of mental health in approximately 75% of the applications.
Along the same lines, many institutions echoed a notable increase in mental and physical health support requests for students living on-campus.
Although diversity at the colleges was not a focal point for many of the conversations, there were a few notable pieces of information.
Several institutions saw an overall increase in applications from students of color.
One institution highlighted a 300% increase in “middle-class students” over the past 10 years.
Some of the institutions noted an increase in applications that specifically identified no interest in applying for financial aid.
Several colleges indicated an increased desire from students to live on campus all four years, even if the institution was struggling to meet that demand. Some institutions theorized this trend as a reaction to students being isolated at home during COVID.
Lastly, several institutions noted a significant increase in cooperation during the college application process from parents and students. This increased cooperation provided both benefits and obstacles for admission offices working with families during the process.
Application Review Practices:
One institution provided an insightful framework around how they incorporate the four “Cs” of college admissions into their review process.
Capable: Does the student have the preparation and ability to succeed in college, even if it might not always be easy?
Competitive: Does the student offer something extra beyond the minimum? (ex. They are smart AND offer something in addition to academics).
Compelling: A student that has done something particularly noteworthy (something so compelling that there might only be a few dozen students in an application pool that compare.
Context: Ensuring that application readers have both the information and ability to look at an application through the lens of a student’s environment.
Several institutions indicated an increased emphasis on qualitative criteria for application review. The qualitative attributes attempted to highlight a student's fit with the culture and mission of the institution.
Almost none of the institutions implemented a model where a single admissions reader made the admission decision for a student.
One institution indicated that the territory manager would provide a first read while another member of the admissions team would provide a second read.
The majority of the institutions had applications go through a first read, second read, and then to a collaborative committee evaluation.
When asked about using the “Additional Information” section on the Common Application, all colleges agreed that it was helpful for context, but students needed to be wary of sending excess documents not requested.
Despite increased discourse about grade inflation during COVID, most institutions reported no noticeable or discernable change in the grades of their application pool. Although all institutions agreed that some degree of grade inflation was taking place, there was not much they could do about it and none wanted to penalize students due to the trend.
Letters of Recommendation:
Almost all institutions agreed that 80% of the Letters of Recommendation they read did not make a significant impact on the student’s admission decision. Instead they emphasized students putting in effort to aim for that top 10% that did matter and avoid the 10% that hurt students.
One college noted an intentional increase in the value of a Letter of Recommendation from a non-academic recommender (as opposed to the traditional requirement for academic letters of recommendation).
Several institutions echoed that they were not expecting a Letter of Recommendation to significantly impact an admission decision, but searching for impactful “nuggets” of information could help a student who was on the fence.
When asked about the difference between Letters of Recommendation from private vs public schools, one institution mentioned training their readers to read the Letter(s) of Recommendation for public school students as the first piece of the application review.
One college also emphasized the Letter of Recommendation as a good way to evaluate school fit for a student.
On the topic of Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and Dual Enrollment (DE) classes, all institutions said that these courses were viewed more favorably than another, and all were reviewed in the context of a student’s high school offerings.
Panelists were asked about any notable academic gaps they were seeing on their campuses due to COVID.
Several institutions were seeing a decrease in writing capabilities, especially long-form writing.
One institution indicated that applications to become a Resident Assistant were down 25% at their institution.
Because of COVID, many institutions saw a significant decrease in Study Abroad. One institution indicated the decrease was as significant as 30-40%. Many institutions also indicated that, despite the COVID pandemic fading into the background, there was still a trending decrease in students studying abroad.
In general, students in high school during COVID were taking fewer AP and IB classes than their predecessors.
One institution noted a statistically lower performance amongst their students in Math & Science subjects.
One college indicated that they were experiencing an increase in post-pandemic college students taking 1 fewer classes compared to pre-pandemic students.
Several institutions echoed difficulty in hiring and maintaining Computer Science faculty due to increased competition in the job field.
Panelists differed in their responses to the importance of demonstrated interest.
A few institutions indicated that any form of demonstrated interest was viewed as important.
One institution indicated that ED was the best and most impactful way to demonstrate interest, while other forms weren’t as beneficial.
Some institutions put almost no emphasis on demonstrated interest. These institutions also pointed out that many of the students showing significant demonstrated interest were already strong and compelling applicants.
One institution indicated that demonstrated interest gave no tangible benefit and was used more commonly as a part of predictive enrollment models.
ChatGPT & AI in Higher Education:
None of the institutions indicated any significant concern about ChatGPT or other AI tools being used to write a student’s personal statement.
Institutions agreed that, in their current forms, AI written personal statements were very obviously identifiable to both new and seasoned admission officers.
In particular, institutions using supplemental essays said that the contrast between the personal statement and supplemental writing was also a strong indicator if AI was used.
Even if a student did use AI and successfully fooled readers, most panelists agreed that the other pieces of the application would help them stay true to a holistic admissions review process.
One panelist indicated less concern for AI writing personal statements and more concern for how AI might compromise a student’s academic integrity during their high school work.
A few of the institutions mentioned experimenting with essay alternatives or investing in AI screening systems, but all expressed that these conversations were still early in their process and highly theoretical.
Views on Paid Research Opportunities:
When asked about the increasing number of organizations providing paid research opportunities for high school students, most institutions said they viewed them similarly as other longstanding “pay-to-play” summer activities.
Generally, local engagement and self-initiated projects were viewed more favorably and highly valued. That being said, no institution indicated a disdain for the programs or any indication of students being penalized for participation.
One panelist emphasized that students should be involved in what they enjoy to end up in a community they enjoy.
Employee Turnover in Admissions:
Two separate sessions highlighted questions or concerns about the increasing turnover in college admission offices, especially with application numbers across the nation increasing. The responses ranged from practical to defeatist to dismissive.
Most institutions viewed the high turnover rate of admission officers as an inevitability. They highlighted the idea that training recent alumni to be admission officers was often more practical than training someone who knew nothing about admissions or their institution.
Many institutions highlighted the fact that their admission salaries can’t compete with other full-time salaries, and limited resources often makes leaving an admissions job the only way to increase income significantly.
Some institutions emphasized that this turnover was not inherently bad and that hiring young alumni provided an opportunity to continue their professional development for their next job or transition to graduate school.
Financial Aid & Scholarships:
Upcoming Changes for the New FAFSA
Several institutions that utilize both the FAFSA and CSS Profile expressed less concern over the changes. In the scenario that the new FAFSA is delayed again (or imperfect), they plan to rely on the CSS Profile for generating financial aid offers.
Institutions not utilizing the CSS Profile are expecting delayed financial aid offers and trying to think of strategies to combat that scenario.
Not Applying for Financial Aid at Need-Blind Institutions:
One need-blind institution indicated that, in the past, a family not applying for financial aid did receive a minor boon for their acceptance chance. However, they also indicated that this kind of situation was exceptionally rare in current admission offices.
All institutions agreed that not applying for financial aid will never hurt. There was no clear indication that not applying for financial aid would benefit a modern applicant.
The policies for scholarships and merit-based aid ranged widely between the institutions.
One institution acknowledged that merit-aid is considered after the class is formed, and that merit-aid can be used to attract high-performing/desirable students from high-income backgrounds.
Several institutions made a point of highlighting the fact that a high-need family is not always a low-income family.
Views on Disciplinary Violations:
Almost all colleges showed a significant interest in communicating with a student over the violation, rather than completely removing them from the pool.
The student acknowledging and taking responsibility for a mistake is paramount.
Colleges are receiving increased anonymous reports of nefarious behavior on public or private social media. Most colleges do not put too much weight on an anonymous tip unless it’s truly compelling.
Colleges are capable of and willing to remove an admission officer from an application review if the disciplinary violation could result in a biased admission decision.
There is an increase in comments, concerns, and alerts over inappropriate humor.
Racism, violence, sexual assault, lying on an application, and sexism are all close to dealbreakers.
Never ask a child’s friends where they are applying or what their academic scores are.
Choose a day/time for college-related things and stick to that.
We (parents/AOs/IECs) don’t attend college, students attend college alone and need to own their process.
Whether you are an independent educational consultant, high school student, family member, or just interested in higher education, I hope you found these summaries helpful. I would like to extend another sincere thanks to the professionals and institutions who invested both time and resources to help provide some insights into their processes. If you found any of this information intriguing, take a moment to sign up for our monthly newsletter which highlights new, trending, and relevant higher education news.
With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors