College Acceptance Rates Are Up. Yield Is Down. Why?

Lyquaia Purcell, Director of Digital Transformation

While sitting in a session on recruitment at ACCRAO SEM, the moderator asked a panel of strategic enrollment managers which part of the funnel most concerns them. Leading up to that question, the dialogue was filled with the uncertainties surrounding college search name buys as testing policies have recently changed. The question was a perfect segue into all of our top-of-the-funnel woes, but without hesitation, the entire panel said without question: Yield.

One university VP talked about how students are in a complete fog. He said he’s been on the road and for the first time, he is having to sell students on going to school, PERIOD vs. just trying to sell them on his school. His exact words were “just getting them to college feels daunting.” 

A recent study by The Chronicle of Higher Education supports this qualitative observation. Enrollment is down for the second year in a row. And while colleges and universities are accepting more students —  up four percent —  the percentage of accepted students who subsequently enroll has actually gone down by 3 percent. This isn’t occurring at a small slice of institutions. The share of admitted students who subsequently enrolled went down at seven out of 10 institutions at the onset of the pandemic.  

Why? It would be nice to blame this on the pandemic alone, but that’s not the case. 
This should be good news for students, especially those who want to return to school in uncertain economic times. So why is the opposite happening? What friction points are causing admitted students not to show up to campus?

One reason might be that unexpected options create a level of complexity that’s overwhelming for students and families. Let’s look at Common App, which makes the process to apply to multiple colleges remarkably fast and easy for students. Common App has more than 900 member institutions and the number of students applying to 10 or more institutions rose last year.

However, there seems to be a negative correlation between the ease of applying and yield. The National Bureau of Economic Research found that joining the Common App results in a 12 percent increase in applications and a 9 percent decrease in yield

New test-optional policies may actually contribute to this. At the onset of the pandemic, many schools were forced into test-optional policies due to testing site closures. In fact, a Diverse Issues in Higher Education report found that 89% of Common App members did not require test scores.  

As testing policies changed, things moved quickly, maybe too quickly. Schools are still adjusting and fine-tuning their policies. Moving forward, it still won’t be easy to navigate the process. While tests may be optional or not required at all, other parts of the application may be even more scrutinized (dependent on the institution) such as course rigor, essays, extracurricular activities, leadership roles, and letters of recommendation—which will add to the complexity. Already, complexity is at an all-time high.

Two-thirds of the public, four-year institutions are either test-optional, test-flexible, test-blind, sometimes test-free, and the kicker is that each institution is unique (source: I hosted a panel recently with test-free, test-blind and test-free institutions represented. Although I had adequately researched each of them, even I had trouble deciphering the nuances between the policies and certainly couldn’t explain how each of their test policies related to scholarships.

However, each of their policies led to increased, more diverse applicant pools, which means more and more students are attempting to navigate this complex process and make decisions around policies that at times can be as clear as mud.

One reason may be that more options equal more complexity. That complexity is overwhelming and many students are giving up before they start. At the onset of the pandemic, many schools were forced into test-optional policies due to testing site closures and had to adjust in real-time. In fact, The Common App, which makes the process to apply for multiple colleges easier for hundreds of thousands of students, now has more than 900 member institutions, and a Diverse Issues in Higher Education report found that “89% of Common App members did not require test scores”.  In fact, the number of students applying to 10 or more colleges and universities.

For low-income, first-gen students who didn’t expect to have many choices when it comes to higher ed, they’re now facing choices they never imagined having to make, and all the complexity that comes with it – like understanding what schools are affordable.

Another causation of low yield has to do with perceptions of affordability. A Princeton Review survey found that the cost is the biggest worry amongst college applications. 70 percent of college students shared that affordability ultimately impacted their fall 2021 plans.

The truth is so many of the populations from which schools are trying to recruit – low income, first-gen, historically excluded– don't understand their affordability options for college. In fact, 76 percent of first-generation students eliminated colleges from consideration based on the sticker price alone. These insights tell us that families are making decisions about college before knowing if and how they can afford it. 63 percent of parents of college applicants estimate that college will cost more than $100,000. 

Misinformation during the awareness and consideration stages of the college search combined with the correct information coming too late in the decision-making process results in students simply not deciding at all. 

Getting ahead of false perceptions about affordability and helping students realize a path to a degree is critical to closing enrollment gaps. The traditional methods of interacting with admitted students is outdated given the new population of students entering the pipeline. Due to test-optional policies, these students are more diverse, less “traditional” and are enduring economic fallout from the pandemic in the form of financial trauma. 

These students don’t inherently know about scholarship options, Pell grants or work-study opportunities. Or... they don’t know until after they’ve made the decision not to pursue college. Schools can change this by starting conversations early and doing a little myth-busting. Students and families need early (9th grade-early) insight into what they could receive in scholarships and need-based aid so they can plan for the future that includes higher ed. 

While we expected a seismic shift in the high school population as we inched closer to the demographic/enrollment cliff, we could not predict how something like a pandemic would quickly turn the attitudes and values of higher education. High school students are experiencing an enormous amount of stress. They are emotionally exhausted and feel overwhelmed as a result of the pandemic. This has led to school-related burnout presenting as exhaustion, detached attitudes towards post-secondary education and feelings of inadequacy

Institutions are feeling a pinch, they’re responding by making admittance easier. Recap the Niche Study data. But that isn’t solving the problem. In order to keep the pipeline and campus full, schools need to start engagement earlier, focus on clarifying affordability, and help students see themselves with a degree in hand and feel energized about it.

About the Author

Lyquaia Purcell, Director of Digital Transformation

Lyquaia Purcell is the Senior Director of Digital Transformation at Ellucian. She enjoys dance parties with her two kiddos and attending sporting events with her family. Before joining the Ellucian team, she served as the VP of Enrollment Success at CampusLogic and in various roles within the enrollment management space, which included AVP for Enrollment Management and Enrollment Management Marketing and Communications Strategist. Lyquaia’s areas of expertise include strategic enrollment planning and student engagement through the lens of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

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