Why applications to college may be bouncing back

Dr. Michael Nietzel
Dr. Michael Nietzel

Dr. Michael Nietzel is a Senior Educational Policy Advisor to the Missouri Governor. He was appointed President of Missouri State University in 2005. He has also worked as the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kentucky, where he was Chair of the Psychology Department, Dean of the Graduate School, and Provost.

Why applications to college may be bouncing back

    Although the slide in college enrollments continues, a new report has brought some good news: applications to college appear to be bouncing back during the current (2021-22) admissions cycle compared to the last 2 years.


    In-person college applications, especially with minority, first generation to college and fee-waiver students, have significantly increased for the 2021-2022 school year. The reasons are related to changes in COVID19 restrictions, compulsory test scores, and international students feeling more welcome to study in the U.S. under the Biden administration.

    The latest data comes from a report (January 2022) by the Common Application covering applications to 4-year institutions received by those schools through January 17, 2022. It’s the third update on applications received by Common App members in recent months. The earlier updates summarized application trends through mid-December and mid-November.

    Because the COVID19 pandemic affected college applications so strongly in the 2020–21 season, the Common App report includes comparisons not just to last year, where the numbers are almost certainly skewed to a significant degree, but also to the more typical 2019-20 admissions cycle.

    Applicants and student characteristics

    According to this latest report, 1,106,777 distinct applicants had applied to 853 colleges that use the Common App. That is an increase of 13.2% over 2019–20 (977,914). Through that same date, application volume—which counts the multiple applications made by most students— was up 19.8% from 2019–20 (5,058,853) to 2021–22 (6,061,556).

    More encouraging news can be found in the increased application activity occurring among 3 groups: underrepresented minority students, first generation to college students, and fee waiver-receiving applicants.

    • Underrepresented minority applicants increased by 16% over 2019–20
    • First-generation applicants increased by 20%, double the rate of increase among continuing-generation applicants over the same period
    • Applicants receiving a fee-waiver increased 12% compared to 2019-20

    Nonetheless, socioeconomic status is still a major factor associated with applications to college. About 57% of domestic applicants lived in the most affluent 20% of zip codes nationwide, and applicants from the bottom quintile comprised only 6% of the overall applicant pool. Those figures are consistent with prior year Common App numbers.

    Applications were also up across all regions of the country apart from the Northeast.

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    Applications rise in these 3 select groups

    underrepresented minorities


    first generation to college students


    fee waiver students


    International applications

    The number of international applicants (109,294) was up a robust 31% over the 2019–20 total of 83,000 applicants, triple the rate of increase for domestic applicants. China, India, Canada, Pakistan, and Nigeria were the leading home countries for international applicants.

    Test-optional applications

    This year, the percentage of Common App institutions that required standardized test scores decreased to 5% eclipsing the previous record low of 11% in 2020–21.

    The share of applicants who reported test scores to the Common App was 77% in 2019-20. That rate plummeted to 44% in 2020-21 but recovered to 49% this season.

    This recent recovery might be attributable to increases in access to testing sites compared to the early months of the pandemic, when many test sites were temporarily closed. An alternative explanation is that the slight increase in test score submissions might reflect a change in applicants’ strategy as they learn more about the pros and cons of submitting test scores.

    There are large differences in test-score reporting associated with student demographics. Underrepresented minority students, first-generation college students, and fee-waiver recipients are much less likely—by differences of 14%, 19%, and 17% respectively— to report test scores with their applications than students not from those groups.

    Types of institutions

    While nearly 60% of applications received by Common App members through mid-January have been to private institutions, applications to Common App public colleges and universities have increased 24% compared to 2019–20, substantially more than the 17% increase reported for private schools.

    The level of admissions selectivity was also associated with differential growth in application volume. Since 2019-20:

    • highly selective members (admit rates below 50%) saw a 25% increase in applications
    • more selective institutions (with admit rates of 50-74%) saw an increase of 11%
    • less selective institutions (admit rates above 75%) were up 16%.

    A similar pattern was found in the prior 2 years, when highly selective institutions were the only subgroup of private colleges that did not experience a decline in applications between 2019–20 and 2020–21.

    Why the increase?

    Three consecutive waves of Common App data, spanning the months of November 2021 through January 2022 have now found an increased number of students applying to college. While the final numbers are not yet in, this trend is encouraging and suggests that the decade-long erosion of college enrollment might be eased a bit next year by the possibility of an increase in entering students.

    At least 3 factors appear to be contributing to more applications.

    1. COVID19 fears are receding

    First, as universities and campuses begin to return their classes and campus operations to something resembling a pre-pandemic normal, more students are eager to attend now that they can again enjoy the full gamut of college experiences.

    A pivot back to in-person learning has been underway for several months, even during the surge of the Omicron variant. According to the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, nearly 90% of colleges and universities have brought students back to campus on their original schedule this spring.

    A return to normal, or near-normal campus operations, offers a real world test of the strategy of transitioning from behavior required in a pandemic to that more typical of an endemic. That shift means that restrictions can be eased, mandates relaxed, and full participation in public events allowed.

    While most experts caution that we’re not out of the coronavirus woods yet, and that public health precautions like vaccinations, surveillance testing, masking, and social distancing – are essential for a bit longer, there is also a growing optimism that we may be approaching the time where colleges move more toward attempting to manage and treat the virus rather than trying to prevent or contain it.

    A pivot back to in-person learning has been underway for several months, even during the surge of the Omicron variant.

    2. International students feel more welcome

    Second, applications from international students are currently up by about 26,000 applicants, compared to 2 years ago. That recovery probably stems from 2 causes. The same lessening of the severity of the pandemic that has eased anxieties among domestic students is likely having the same effect on international applicants. Perhaps even more significant is the perception among international students that the U.S. has become more welcoming to them than it was during the Trump administration.

    Since President Biden took office, his administration has limited or reversed several Trump-era restrictions on immigration to the United States, including plans to increase refugee admissions and relax public-charge rules for immigrants who might use public benefits like Medicaid. Biden has also lifted restrictions that slashed the number of visas issued to immigrants.

    3. Test-optional admissions are having an effect

    According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), at least 1,815 colleges and universities will practice test-optional or test-blind admissions for fall, 2022 admissions. That is an all-time high. This list includes nearly all of the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities, as well as several of the largest public systems of higher education.

    The dramatic, national shift away from requiring standardized tests for making college admission decisions is clearly having an impact on student decision making. The fact that we see larger-than-average increases in college applications from underrepresented minority students and first generation to college students is almost certainly linked to the fact that these same groups are less likely to submit test scores with their applications than other student groups.

    The dramatic, national shift away from requiring standardized tests for making college admission decisions is clearly having an impact on student decision making.

    These initial waves of application data do not guarantee that the final application numbers, much less total enrollment, will increase for next year. On the one hand, they are significant because they include applications that were largely submitted for early action and early decision deadlines, which are used by many private 4-year colleges and universities. On the other hand, the data excludes applications to community colleges, the sector the has sustained the heaviest enrollment losses over the 2 years of pandemic.

    Although preliminary, the data suggests that 4-year colleges and universities may be seeing the beginning of a turnaround in the declining admissions numbers they have been fighting for several years, a trend exacerbated by the pandemic.

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