This week, as reported by Inside Higher Education, both the Common Application and the Brookings Center on Children and Families released enlightening reports on the current state of college admissions and enrollment. The Common App provided information regarding volume and demographic data for applicants who submitted applications prior to January 1 (a pool which includes a selection of both Early and Regular Decision applications), while the Brookings report examined the role of academic preparation in contributing to continuing disparities in college enrollment.
The Common App report included some encouraging data, indicating a slight reversal of pandemic-era downward trends in college enrollment. The report found that this admissions cycle saw 1,079,936 distinct first-year applicants, a 20% increase since the 2019-20 cycle, the last admissions season not impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, the report notes that over the last three years there has been a 30% increase in underrepresented minority (URM) applicants and a 35% increase in first-generation applicants.
At the same time, wealth inequality continues to persist in the college applicant pool. The Common App report states that “[a]bout 56% of domestic applicants at this point in the season resided in the most affluent quintile (i.e., top 20%) of ZIP codes nationwide, compared to just six percent from the bottom quintile.” This number, reflective of the January 1 application pool, represents a decline of approximately 5% since November, indicating that the early applicant pool tends to consist of even more students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds than the regular decision pool.
The Brookings report notes that these disparities are even more stark when considering enrollment trends—the report highlights that “89% of students from families in the top SES [socioeconomic status] quintile enroll in college compared with 51% of those in the bottom.” The report posits that the reason for this socioeconomic gap and concomitant racial and ethnic disparities is in students’ academic preparedness, which the report defines as their academic skill, demonstrated in their standardized test scores, high school grades, and the rigor of their course load. The study found that within groups of students with the same academic preparation, disparities along socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic lines were significantly smaller.
In light of this research, the report writes: “Differences in academic preparation are not only influenced by a student’s actions but also by the opportunities they have to learn both in and out of school, and group differences in academic preparation could be the result of discrimination affecting a student’s opportunities to learn. Closing gaps in academic preparation is crucial for addressing gender and racial gaps in college enrollment, and addressing both academic and non-academic factors like cost and lack of information will be necessary to address socioeconomic disparities among students with similar levels of academic preparation.”