A seemingly trivial tweak in how colleges report application numbers to the federal government could cause them to more closely scrutinize barriers, like fees, that make it hard for students to finish applying, enrollment experts say.
In turn, this change could help demolish roadblocks that prevent historically underrepresented students from seeking a college education.
Federally funded institutions must send their application counts to the U.S. Department of Education each year as part of information gathering for the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, known as IPEDS.
IPEDS is a public-facing database containing statistics on individual institutions, covering areas such as enrollment. It can also be used to view national trends over time.
The Education Department recently clarified IPEDS data collection practices for the 2022-23 cycle, stating explicitly that colleges may no longer include incomplete applications in their reported count. That may mean some institutions’ admissions rates will rise as the application numbers they disclose to IPEDS shrink.
Some colleges may begin to evaluate how big their file of incomplete applications is, said Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
"Schools have been somewhat dismissive of that pool," Borst said. "This will really make them start to question what students are missing."
What’s important about admissions rates?
Almost all competitive colleges care about their admissions rate — the percentage of students they accept, versus those who applied — for one reason or another.
Most colleges admit a majority of applicants. But a band of selective institutions have reinforced their exclusive reputations with low, even single-digit admit rates. The California Institute of Technology and Harvard University both admit only about 4% of students, according to U.S. News and World Report.
College reviews influential to students and families, like those from The Princeton Review, also factor in selectivity. Some colleges have gone so far as to purchase SAT test takers’ names to broaden their applicant pools and bolster their rejection rates.
Less-selective institutions also focus on the share of admitted students, more often for reasons like eliminating barriers for historically marginalized groups than prestige.
Bond rating agencies like Moody’s Investors Service also consider selectivity when assigning a score.
Admissions rates thus represent an institution’s market power, said Robert Kelchen, a higher education professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Those with low admit rates can accept more students as needed, he said.
The ability to recruit students is particularly important in an admissions landscape that the coronavirus scrambled and in which the Common Application is a mainstay. The Common App online portal enables students to easily apply to its 1,000-some member colleges — allowing applicants to throw their hat in the ring at many institutions.
Colleges are under pressure to receive as many complete applications as possible, Kelchen said.
However, with changes in IPEDS reporting, colleges may be more inclined to eliminate elements of the admissions process, like application fees or essays, if they discover they contribute to students not completing their applications.
Institutions may also reach out to students in some way to urge them to finish their applications, Kelchen said.
“We just don’t have a great sense how this will turn out,” he said, noting that the sector doesn’t know how many incomplete applications exist.
However, admit rates could change under the clarified reporting policy.
Borst said his institution had a 44.8% admissions rate for fall 2022, accepting 28,354 students compared to 63,257 submitted applications.
However, about 6% of applications were denied for being incomplete. The new reporting rules would have altered the university’s admissions rate to be 47.8%.
“That change is statistically significant, but will it be practically significant when the change is implemented at all universities at the same time,” Borst said on Twitter.
‘More questions than answers’
However, not everyone thinks the change is so substantial. It doesn’t “alter the substance” of what defines an application, according to David Hawkins, chief education and policy officer at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, or NACAC.
“As such, it seems to be raising more questions than it answers, at least in our initial conversations,” Hawkins said in an email.
He said the new IPEDS language could remind colleges of the definition of an application, “particularly if colleges were not already using the IPEDS standard.”
Colleges’ admissions rates are reported elsewhere — like institutional fact books and institutions’ submissions to the Common Data Set.
This could spur some discrepancies between the statistics shared publicly on IPEDS and other sources.
An IPEDS webpage summarizing the shifts in reporting notes that “artificially inflating” applicant counts by including those that were incomplete “is an example of not reporting accurately to IPEDS.”
This statement suggests the Education Department anticipates some colleges may not correctly disclose their application numbers, Kelchen said.
And Borst doesn’t think admissions offices are widely aware of the changes.
“They’ll find out about it when they have to go to report and the institutional research office will say, ‘This is how you need to report,’” he said. “Tension will likely arise.”
But Hawkins said admissions officers have begun discussing the change.
“What will be important for us is to ensure that there is a clear understanding of what this change means and that the fundamental definition of an application has not substantively changed,” he said. “Rather, the clarification is another step in a long path toward ensuring accurate, transparent data reporting of admission statistics.”
Will an administrative change help clear admissions barriers?
The new reporting policies could prompt broad discussion at some colleges on an issue at the heart of admissions: equity.
Contemporary admissions procedures are exclusionary, built on a model with many complicated steps, according to a NACAC report released this year.
If an application is more complex, requiring more materials like an essay or letter of recommendation, it becomes less equitable, the NACAC report states. Disadvantaged students often lack the ability to gather those resources and navigate an onerous process.
Application fees are another potentially burdensome prong of admissions, costing about $50 on average for four-year nonprofit institutions in the 2018 admissions cycle. They average around $77 for a group of about 60 colleges with the most expensive fees, The Education Trust found in 2020.
Even though students can generally request fee waivers, doing so might entail verifying family income or some other certification, NACAC’s report states.
However, despite NACAC recommending colleges nix application fees whenever possible, Borst said many institutions have preserved them — partially because they help pay for admissions professionals’ expenses.
Enrollment officials are often not well compensated to begin with, and an alternative to covering their offices' costs, such as raising tuition, likely wouldn’t fly, he said.
Hawkins said it’s unclear whether underrepresented students will benefit significantly. But he said that colleges not in compliance with IPEDS reporting likely will be more proactive in seeking information from students with unfinished applications.
For a while now, some admissions departments have pondered “the utility” of certain pieces of the application, like essays and fees, Nikki Chun, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, said in an email.
That includes her institution, she said. Chun said she’s glad the new IPEDS policies have created openings for institutions to “ask themselves these critical questions” anew.
“These questions don’t always lead to immediate change, but they are essential questions,” she said.