By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.
Back in February, the future of college enrollments looked downright bleak. But new information, new numbers to be more precise, indicate that near term enrollments may not be so bad after all. In fact, they may be quite good.
To be clear, that’s near term enrollments – for 2022 – not long term. Those prospects, looking out five to ten years, are largely unchanged and not encouraging as fewer potential freshmen are expected to be available and populations continue to shift. In the more narrow window of next year however, things are looking up – way up.
That outlook is based on data released this week by The Common App, the one-stop college application provider. According to their data, the actual number of applications being submitted is up 22% over pre-pandemic, 2019 levels and up nearly as much over last year. That’s a major jump. Twenty-two percent is multiple times the size of projected annual declines over the next decade, which are anticipated to be in the 2-3% range annually.
Said another way, the biggest question facing colleges this coming year was whether the covid-delayers would return to school or be lost forever. With the new Common App data, we may have an early answer. It looks as though they’re coming back, providing a Covid bounce.
It’s impossible to overstate what good news that could be for colleges.
If the surge in applications carries over to enrollments, colleges may have a bridge from emergency government funding to relative stability, as well as a breathing space to prepare for the slow, downward glide that’s coming.
The data does not count community colleges, as many have open enrollment policies and don’t rely on the same formal college applications. That’s important because, in the Covid downturn, community colleges were bludgeoned more than any other higher education sector. We will have to wait to see how they fare, enrollment-wise. But clearly, a bump in four-year applicants, a signal that students are coming back, is a good sign.
Perhaps more important than the eye-popping 22% boost in applications is that, according to Common App, there’s also a major jump in applications from foreign students. Based on the new data, foreign applications are up 40% over pre-pandemic 2019-2020.
That’s big news because many foreign students pay significantly more than domestic scholars – especially at public schools. A significant number of schools build their budgets around attracting and retraining overseas students. When the pool of foreign students began to drain due to Covid and perceived antagonism from former President Trump, the consequences were dramatic and sudden. If these new early numbers hold out, and foreign students do return, that alone will change the fortunes of dozens, perhaps hundreds of schools.
It’s no surprise that in reporting its data, The Common App said that college’s long term privilege and access gaps persist. That is to say that, even though applications are up across the board, the application pool still heavily favors wealthy and multi-generational college graduate families.
It’s likewise no surprise that The Common App said that more elite or exclusive schools were benefiting the most from the uptick in applicants. Though it is a bit noteworthy that the increase in applications to public schools outpaced the growth in private school applications by a 28% to 15% margin. Given that states have pulled back their funding levels for colleges over the past two decades, and especially since the pandemic, a lean in application growth in the direction of public schools is also welcome news.
Also on the no surprise list is that significantly fewer students are submitting test scores with their applications as “test optional” schools become the new normal. In fact, the lack of required test scores may be contributing significantly to the increase in applications. Whether the shift will result in more enrollees or better classes or better retention rates is too early to even speculate. But it’s long been suggested that dropping assessment requirements would spark applications – which is unquestionably good for schools.
In an era when massive school closures have been incorrectly predicted, it’s encouraging and refreshing to see data showing some light and promise. If theoretical market dynamics were what caused people to doubt the health and power of colleges, actual market demand – up 22% in the middle of this pandemic – ought to say a great deal too.
But it’s not entirely about being right. The real news, we can hope, is that more of higher education’s doors to a better, more productive, more lucrative life will remain open. The best news is that it seems that more and more students are asking to walk trough them.