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Interest grows at top colleges, as struggling ones scratch for applicants

Prestigious universities like Cornell never struggle to attract students. But this year, the Ithaca, NY admissions office is swimming in 17,000 more applications than it has ever received before, mostly due to the school’s decision not to demand standardized test results during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve seen people who thought ‘I’ll never get into Cornell’ think, ‘Oh, if they don’t look at a test result, maybe I really have a chance,'” said Jonathan Burdick. , Cornell vice-provost for registration.

But while selective universities like Cornell and his fellow Ivy League schools have garnered unprecedented interest after giving up on test scores, smaller, less recognizable schools face the opposite problem: empty mailboxes.

In early December, applications to Cal Poly Pomona, east of Los Angeles and part of the California State University system, were down 40% from the previous year compared to first year students. potential year and 52% by transfer students, most of whom have started their graduate studies. education in community colleges.

A decline in applications does not always translate into a decline in registrations. But at a time when many colleges and universities are squeezed financially by the pandemic and a loss of public funding, the prospect of attracting fewer students – and losing critical tuition fees – is dire in schools that already have reduced programs and laid off. Staff.

To avoid this, the faculty and administrators of Cal Poly Pomona, who lost $ 20 million in public funding this fiscal year, spent December calling students who had started their applications but did not have them. submitted, or who had applied in the past and were not accepted.

“It’s like Amazon,” said Luoluo Hong, who oversees admissions in the states of California, a largely suburban school network. “’There is a purchase in your cart!’ And then we try to follow through and close the deal. “

The California state system extended the application deadline for all of its schools by two weeks and Cal Poly Pomona was able to close the gap. But his Herculean effort, at a time when Ivy League schools had to add an extra week just to account for the influx of applicants, further underscored inequalities in higher education that have been made worse by the pandemic. .

“It impacts both students from an equity standpoint,” said Jenny Rickard, executive director of the joint app, which is used by colleges across the country, “and it also shows which colleges and universities are the most privileged.

The country’s most selective four-year institutions, both public and private, have seen a record 17% increase in applications this year, according to the joint app. Small liberal arts schools felt a boon, with applications to Haverford and Swarthmore increasing by 16% and 12% respectively. Likewise, large public schools like the University of California at Los Angeles, where freshman applications have increased by 28%.

Applications to Penn State’s main campus, a Big Ten school, increased 11%. Harvard saw a whopping 42% spike, while Colgate University in upstate New York received 103% more applications.

But smaller or less recognizable institutions, both public and private, have seen steep declines.

Applications fell 14% at State University of New York, the nation’s largest public university system. In Portland State, Oregon, first-year requests were down 12% and transfers by 28%. Loyola University Maryland, a private liberal arts school in Baltimore, saw a 12% drop in total applications, even after extending its two-week deadline.

The declines come at a time when colleges and universities have been financially beaten by the coronavirus, with losses estimated at more than $ 120 billion due to declining enrollments and drying up revenue streams such as services food and sporting events.

Many institutions outside of senior level were struggling even before the pandemic, and a smaller freshman class could mean more distress, including smaller programs and layoffs of teachers – making them, in a circle vicious, even less attractive to potential students. Some colleges even closed permanently during the pandemic.

“Covid did not create this challenge, but it certainly exposes and exacerbates the risk institutions face financially,” said Susan Campbell Baldridge, former provost of Middlebury College and co-author of “The College Stress Test,” a book that examines the financial threats facing some US colleges and universities.

Even before the pandemic, Dr Baldridge said, “the rich were getting richer and the poor were increasingly facing institutional challenges.” The pattern of applications during the pandemic is just “further evidence” of a long-term trend, she said.

Common app data does not include community colleges, as it typically allows anyone to enroll. But these schools, which often give low-income students a first step into higher education, have also seen sharp declines. In the fall of 2020, freshman enrollment fell by more than 20%.

“We have seen by far the largest declines among students in low-income high schools, high-minority high schools, and urban high schools, who would normally have attended community colleges this fall and have simply disappeared,” said Doug Shapiro, vice president of research at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which publishes educational reports.

These students often have to work or do not have online access, making it more difficult to apply, he said. “It is the students who will have the most difficulty getting back on track, even after the pandemic is over.”

About 3% fewer students who would be the first in their families to go to college submitted applications this year, according to common app data, along with a 2% drop in student numbers eligible for an admission fee waiver – an approximation of family income.

But although fewer people from these groups applied overall, some selective schools have seen large increases in the share of students who are generally under-represented in elite institutions. The University of California at Berkeley received 38% more applications from black, Latino and Native American applicants than in 2019. New York University saw 22% more applications from black and Latino students .

There is no doubt what is driving these gains: making standardized test scores optional for candidates. About 1,700 schools did not require SAT or ACT scores this year.

“When students try to assess their chances of being admitted, they often look at ‘What are the average scores on the test? or “What’s the average GPA?” Ms. Rickard of the Common App said. Without a result on the test, she said, “maybe they don’t know exactly where to aim, or they think it’s their opportunity to try to get into a more selective institution.

Although most of the schools that have waived standardized tests this year have done so temporarily, a growing number of schools are making them permanent due to concerns that the tests are inherently biased. The University of California system, which serves nearly 300,000 students and includes some of the nation’s most sought-after schools, decided last year to suspend examining SAT and ACT scores. Applications across the system grew 16% this year, a record high.

“Removing that barrier has really resulted in an increase in applications,” said Emily D. Engelschall, who oversees admissions at the University of California at Riverside.

The experiment of ignoring test results could extend beyond the coronavirus crisis, some admissions officers said. The University of Chicago had already declared itself an optional test in 2018. And several Ivy League schools, including Harvard, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, have said they will not require test results for students. next year’s candidates, most of whom are currently high school juniors. .

Cornell had made a significant effort in recent years to broaden the diversity of its applicant pool, but Mr Burdick, who oversees admissions, said nothing had had such a big impact as waiving test scores. “We haven’t seen an expansion of rich kids saying, ‘Well, I’m going to apply to Cornell. This was already happening, ”he said.

Mr Burdick said his staff had come up with a new way of reviewing applications – a “universal transcript review” – focused on the rigor of the courses applicants took in high school and how they got there. were successful.

“The essay, the resume and the letters are a little more important than they would be in a system where the test score sort of just stayed there as a big object of the review process,” he said. Mr Burdick said.

While Cornell and his peers appreciate their generosity, the state systems and less selective private schools that educate the majority of US college graduates are bracing for long-term distress if declining demands lead to declining enrollment and tuition income. .

Colleges typically admit students they think will attend. But this year, with increased competition for them, admitted students could start playing the field or get stuck in waiting list limbo at more selective schools as a hectic year unfolds.

“For us,” said Dr. Hong of Cal State, “what ultimately matters is that you get into college. But are you going?

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