University News

College enrollment dips, but U. apps remain high

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, December 3, 2012

National college enrollment numbers dipped in 2011 for the first time in 15 years, but higher education experts do not believe lower total matriculation will have an immediate effect on Brown’s admission process. 

Enrollment decreased by only one percentage point, but this is its first decline since 1996, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“The plateau, at least among students transitioning to four-year colleges, is something we’ve expected,” and is likely due to a smaller number of high school seniors, said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

But Hawkins cautioned against drawing too many conclusions about the application process itself from the slight decrease in college enrollment. He said the growing popularity of the Common Application could continue to facilitate larger application pools, especially at elite universities.

“The number of applications that institutions like Brown receive is ultimately going to continue to grow,” Hawkins said, adding that policy decisions could also have a substantial effect on future admission trends.

Other admission experts echoed Hawkins’ assessment. Steven Goodman, head of Top Colleges admission consulting, said the 2011 decrease in college enrollment does not mean the Ivy League admissions game will become less competitive.

“Brown University is not the average school,” Goodman said. “There are two Americas.”

Eric Hoover, senior writer for admission at the Chronicle of Higher Education, said elite universities’ global outreach to more international students could also make up for any decrease in college enrollment that may be attributable to fewer U.S. high school students.

“I don’t think we’re on the verge of a big slowdown from the increases we’ve seen in the past decade,” Hoover said, who linked the dip in college enrollment to increasing awareness among high school students about what type of institution fits their needs.

“Consumers, for better or worse, have become more conscious,” Hoover said.

While the total number of students enrolling in college declined last year, the total number of applications received by universities across the United States continues to increase. A majority of colleges have received a higher number of applications each year since 1997 than they did in the year prior, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s “2012 State of College Admission” report released last Thursday.

NACAC’s report found that high school students are applying to an increasing number of schools, with 79 percent of seniors applying to at least three schools in 2011, a 12 percent increase from the previous year. About 30 percent of high school students applied to seven or more colleges last year, marking a 4 percent increase from the previous year.

The rise in college applications received across the nation mirrors the University’s admission trends in recent years. 

Early decision applications to the University increased to 3,009 this fall, a record-high number more than 3 percent above last year’s total, according to the Admission Office. The University received about 50 applications later than the original deadline following delays related to Hurricane Sandy, forcing an extension of the application deadline to Nov. 7.

Other Ivy League institutions also saw growth in their early application pools. Columbia saw a 1.3 percent increase, Penn reported a 5.6 percent increase, Princeton applications jumped 10 percent, and Yale witnessed a 4.4 percent increase.

Harvard’s total number of early applications increased by the largest rate among the Ivies, spiking up 15 percent from last fall, while Dartmouth saw a 12.5 percent decrease in the number of early applications received. Cornell has not yet reported its early application total.

Jim Miller ’73, dean of admission, wrote in an email to The Herald that he could not draw any conclusions about the size of this year’s regular decision pool based on early applications. 

Accurately forecasting the regular admission pool based on early numbers can be a tricky business.

Last year, the University received what was then a record number of early applications for the class of 2016, but it then saw its regular decision pool shrink by about 2,000. The admission cycle for the class of 2015 was similarly hard to predict – early applications in the fall of 2010 dropped from the previous year, but the Admission Office received the highest number of regular decision applications ever with 30,948 total applicants.

Michelle Hernandez, a college admission consultant who specializes in helping high school seniors secure acceptance to elite universities, said she was not surprised by the increases in early applications received by Ivy League institutions this fall.

“My feeling is there’s nothing earth-shattering,” Hernandez said, noting that most elite universities have seen gradual increases in both their early and regular decision application pools over the past few years. “I think this is going to be kind of a boring, typical, normal year, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there are slight increases in applications,” she said.

Hernandez said Dartmouth’s decrease may be linked to the school’s hazing scandal that broke earlier this year. The school’s fraternity system received national media exposure after a Dartmouth student wrote about his experiences with excessive hazing as a member of a fraternity. But Hernandez said even a 12.5 percent dip was not too large for the early decision pool, given how few students apply in the early process overall. 

College enrollment rates may also be affected by national education reform measures.

Discussions over education reform in the last few years have focused on preparing students at the elementary and secondary education levels for college. Next year, Congress will vote on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, a debate that will to a large degree be based on how to improve college and career readiness, Hawkins said.

“You’re going to see much more effort thrown at preparing students to transition to post-secondary education,” Hawkins said, adding that these measures, if successful, could mitigate the demographic effect of lower numbers of students graduating from high school. 

“There’s room for growth,” he said.