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Beneath the College Admissions Iceberg: Why Schools Are Struggling to Keep Their Students

May 19, 2022

Have you ever heard of summer melt? This is a phenomenon that occurs when a student’s motivation to attend a college “melts” away after high school. Or as Inside Higher Ed puts it, summer melt is “the annual exodus of admitted applicants who are admitted off waiting lists at other institutions or whose circumstances change in some way.” It’s a big problem for many colleges in the U.S., and according to Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, this change in behavior is especially common among low-income students.

Now you might be wondering: why would colleges be concerned about summer melts? With the rising number of applications and exceptionally low acceptance rates, shouldn’t they always have more than enough students?

To start, the outrageously low acceptance rates reported by top-tier schools are not reflective of the significant number of schools still struggling to retain their admitted students. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2019 report, “the great majority of schools, where most Americans get their postsecondary education, admit most of the people who apply to them.” Prestigious, top-tier schools only made up about 3.4% of schools out of 1,364 four-year colleges that were surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2017, and they only accounted for 4.1% of “total student enrollment.” But what about the other 95.9% of students who do not enroll at colleges with extremely competitive admission rates?

Falling admission rates have long been the nationwide trend, even before the pandemic: 45% of schools examined by the Pew Research Center saw a decrease in acceptance rates by at least 10% from 2002 to 2017. However, it’s important to recognize that falling acceptance rates don’t necessarily mean smaller class sizes – rather, the trend is attributed to a rapid rise in applications and students applying to more schools than they used to. In 2002, there were approximately 4.9 million total applications, which grew to almost 10.2 million by 2017 (or 6.8 applications per student, on average). Drew Desilver, the researcher for this report, points out that schools are actually making more offers of acceptance in absolute numbers, but “not enough to keep pace with the soaring number of applications….among the schools that admitted more than 90% of applicants, admissions growth outpaced application growth, 118% to 71%.”

This report from the Pew Research Center was conducted prior to the pandemic. Nonetheless, the trends are ever-present. A recent article written by Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed features efforts by four-year colleges to retain their admitted and committed students. Many four-year colleges will accept students well after commitment dates to maintain their class sizes. At the time this article is being published, the National Association for College Admissions Consulting offers a list of more than 200 colleges that are still accepting applications for this coming fall.

Duquesne University received 12,913 applications this past cycle, a 20 percent increase from the previous year. With an aim to fill their freshman class of 1,500 students, the college accepted about 10,000 students and received 1,520 deposits. So far, the school projects “a summer melt rate of 10 to 12 percent.” Montclair State University also received more than 20,000 applications but received only a few more deposits than its intended size of 4,000 students.

To combat the summer melt, colleges are trying various ways to encourage students to honor their commitments, Jaschik reports. For example, Duquesne University has personalized the process by which they respond to student questions by ensuring prompt responses and making references to the student’s specific interests in their answers. They have also redesigned financial aid forms for easier accessibility and scheduled adopted days for admitted students. Ohio Wesleyan University sends each admitted student an informational packet that includes a personalized note signed by the vice president of enrollment.

Whenever you hear about a record low acceptance rate on the news, take it with a grain of salt – we always hear about the exceptions, but the falling admission rates are not representative of the U.S. schools still on the search for outstanding applicants to fulfill their class of 2026.

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