Prestigious universities like Cornell never have a hard time attracting students. But this year, the admissions office in Ithaca, N.Y., is swimming in 17,000 more applications than it has ever received before, driven mostly by the school’s decision not to require standardized test scores during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We saw people that thought ‘I would never get into Cornell’ thinking, ‘Oh, if they’re not looking at a test score, maybe I’ve actually got a chance,’” said Jonathan Burdick, Cornell’s vice provost for enrollment.
But while selective universities like Cornell and its fellow Ivy League schools have seen unprecedented interest after waiving test scores, smaller and less recognizable schools are dealing with the opposite issue: empty mailboxes.
In early December, applications to Cal Poly Pomona, east of Los Angeles and part of the California State University system, were down 40 percent over the previous year from would-be freshmen, and 52 percent from transfer students, most of whom started their higher education at community colleges.
A drop in applications does not always translate into lower enrollment. But at a time when many colleges and universities are being squeezed financially by the pandemic and a loss of public funding, the prospect of landing fewer students — and losing critical tuition dollars — is a dire one at schools that have already slashed programs and laid off staff.
To avoid that, the faculty and administrators at Cal Poly Pomona, which lost $20 million in state funding this fiscal year, spent December calling students who had started their applications but not submitted them, or who had applied in the past and were not accepted.
“It’s like Amazon,” said Luoluo Hong, who oversees admissions at the Cal States, a network of largely commuter schools. “‘There’s a purchase in your cart!’ And then we’re trying to follow through and close the deal.”
The California State system extended the application deadline for all its schools by two weeks, and Cal Poly Pomona managed to close the gap. But its herculean effort, at a time when Ivy League schools had to add an extra week just to consider their influx of applicants, further underscored inequities in higher education that have been widened by the pandemic.
“It’s impacting both students from an equity perspective,” said Jenny Rickard, the chief executive of the Common Application, which is used by colleges across the country, “and then it’s also showing which colleges and universities are more privileged.”
The nation’s most-selective four-year institutions, both public and private, saw a record-breaking 17 percent increase in applications this year, according to the Common App. Small liberal arts schools felt a boon, with applications to Haverford and Swarthmore increasing by 16 percent and 12 percent, respectively. So did large state schools like the University of California, Los Angeles, where freshman applications increased 28 percent.
Applications to the primary campus at Penn State, a Big Ten School, increased by 11 percent. Harvard saw a whopping 42 percent spike, while Colgate University in upstate New York received 103 percent more applications.
But smaller or less recognizable institutions, both public and private, saw precipitous declines.
Applications fell by 14 percent at the State University of New York, the largest public college system in the country. At Portland State in Oregon, freshman applications were down 12 percent and transfers down 28 percent. Loyola University Maryland, a private liberal arts school in Baltimore, has seen a 12 percent drop in total applications, even after extending its deadline by two weeks.
The declines come at a time when colleges and universities have been battered financially by the coronavirus, with estimated losses of more than $120 billion from plunging enrollment and dried-up revenue streams like food services and athletic events.
Many institutions outside the top tier were struggling even before the pandemic, and a smaller freshman class could mean further distress, including more slashed programs and faculty layoffs — making them, in a vicious cycle, even less attractive to prospective students. A few colleges have even shut down permanently during the pandemic.
“Covid didn’t create this challenge, but it certainly exposes and exacerbates the risk that institutions face financially,” said Susan Campbell Baldridge, a former provost of Middlebury College and co-author of “The College Stress Test,” a book that examines the financial threats to some American colleges and universities.
Even before the pandemic, Dr. Baldridge said, “the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting more and more challenged, in terms of institutions.” The pattern of applications during the pandemic is just “further evidence” of a long-term trend, she said.
The Common App’s data does not include community colleges because they typically allow anyone to enroll. But those schools, which often provide low-income students a first step into higher education, also saw steep declines. In the fall of 2020, freshmen enrollment fell by more than 20 percent.
“We saw the largest declines by far among students from low-income high schools, high-minority high schools, urban high schools, who ordinarily would have gone to community colleges this fall, and who just vanished,” said Doug Shapiro, the vice president for research at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which publishes educational reports.
Those students often have to work or lack online access, making it harder to apply, he said. “Those are students that are going to have the most difficulty getting back on track, even once the pandemic is over.”
About 3 percent fewer students who would be the first in their families to go to college submitted applications this year, according to Common App data, along with a 2 percent drop in students who qualified for waived admissions fees — a proxy for family income.
But although fewer people from those groups applied over all, some selective schools saw big increases from students who are typically underrepresented at elite institutions. The University of California, Berkeley, received 38 percent more applications from Black, Latino and Native American hopefuls than in 2019. New York University saw 22 percent more applications from both Black and Latino students.
“When students are trying to gauge their likelihood of getting admitted, they will often look to, well, ‘What are the test score averages?’ or ‘What’s the G.P.A. average?’” Ms. Rickard of the Common App said. Without a test score, she said, “maybe they aren’t sure exactly where to aim, or they think this is their opportunity to try to get into a more selective institution.”
Although most schools that waived standardized tests this year did so temporarily, a growing number are making it permanent because of concerns that the tests are inherently biased. The University of California system, which serves nearly 300,000 students and includes some of the nation’s most-desired schools, decided last year to suspend consideration of SAT and ACT scores. Applications across the system increased 16 percent this year, a record high.
“The elimination of that barrier really did drive application increases,” said Emily D. Engelschall, who oversees admissions at the University of California, Riverside.
The experiment with ignoring test scores could extend beyond the coronavirus crisis, some admissions officers said. The University of Chicago had already declared itself test optional in 2018. And several Ivy League schools, including Harvard, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania, have said they will not require test scores for next year’s applicants, most of whom are currently high school juniors.
Cornell had made a significant effort in recent years to expand the diversity of its applicant pool, but Mr. Burdick, who oversees admissions, said nothing had as big of an impact as waiving test scores. “We didn’t see an expansion of wealthy kids saying, ‘Well, I’ll apply to Cornell.’ That was already happening,” he said.
Mr. Burdick said his staff had developed a new way to review applications — a “universal transcript review” — focused on the rigor of the classes that applicants took in high school and how they performed in them.
“The essay, the résumé and the letters assume a smidgen more importance than they would have in a system in which the test score just sort of sat there like a big object on the review process,” Mr. Burdick said.
While Cornell and its peers enjoy their bounty, the state systems and less-selective private schools that educate the majority of U.S. college graduates are bracing for long-term distress if the drop in applications leads to depressed enrollment and lower tuition revenue.
Colleges usually admit students they think will attend. But this year, with increased competition for them, admitted students might start playing the field, or get stuck on wait-list limbo at more selective schools as a hectic year shuffles out.
“For us,” said Dr. Hong of Cal State, “what is ultimately going to matter is: You’re admitted to college. But do you go?”