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College applications rebounded by 22% this year—here’s why

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People walk towards Sather Gate on the U.C. Berkeley campus.
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When the coronavirus pandemic first disrupted college campuses during the 2019-2020 school year, college applications decreased and experts raised concerns that low-income and first-generation students were the most likely to miss out on a college education. Now, applications are rebounding.  

"Since March, Covid-19 has significantly disrupted an admission system that has been in place for decades and our worst fears have been realized," Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of The Common Application, told CNBC Make It in Nov. 2020. "Because what remains of the system that had already disadvantaged low-income, first-generation and BIPOC students has made those students even more vulnerable."

The Common App estimated that between Nov. 2019 and Nov. 2020, applications from first-generation students and low-income students who qualify to have their application fees waived decreased by approximately 10% — while the number of college applicants overall decreased by less than 4%.

Most recent estimates from Common App suggest college applications are increasing. As of November 16, 2021, the number of college applicants had increased 13%, and total applications submitted have increased 22%, compared to the previous year. And first-generation students comprised 27% of the total applicant pool.

"Applications have certainly rebounded." Rickard now says. "And one thing that is really encouraging is that applications from underrepresented, first-generation and low-income students are up. Last year, at this time, I remember being incredibly worried about those populations."

Rickard says it is possible some of the increase in applications could be attributed to students who took time away from school to avoid being on campus during earlier phases of the pandemic. But she says there are also other variables at play. For one, she says standardized test-optional policies, which were adopted by a wide range of colleges and universities during the pandemic helped lower barriers for applicants.

Plus, college costs increased at historically low rates this year and many schools used Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund dollars to provide increased financial aid for students in need. 

"It's exciting to see changes in the college admissions process: from offering fee waivers to this test-optional movement," says Rickard. "Some of these changes are sticking, and that gives us an opportunity to continue to interrogate our system, and our processes, to see what other barriers can we remove that will enable more first-gen, underrepresented and low-income students to take the step towards higher education."

Source: The Common Application

And while Rickard says she is genuinely concerned about data that suggests roughly 60% of domestic college applicants come from the most affluent quintile of zip codes nationwide (while just 5% of applicants come from the bottom quintile of neighborhoods), she says she is optimistic that disparities such as these can be addressed. 

"Today there is more optimism among enrollment leaders," she says. "A year and a half ago, and it was very bleak what the future was going to be."

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