Personal Finance

College admission applications spike as January deadline nears

Key Points
  • Already, the number applications filed for undergraduate admission is up 22% from pre-pandemic levels, according to the Common App.
  • However, 60% of applicants are from the most affluent communities, while only 5% are from the lowest-income areas.
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When it comes to getting accepted to college, this year's high school seniors are playing the odds.

"We are seeing students apply to so many schools because they saw how hard it was last year," said Christopher Rim, founder and CEO of Command Education in New York.

In the past, students would apply to 12 colleges to 15 colleges, he said. "This year, students are applying to 20 to 25 schools."

"I just want to go all out so I have the best opportunity," said Jacob, 17, a high-school senior in New York who is applying to 22 colleges in all.

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"In this case, more is better," he said. Jacob asked CNBC not to use his last name for fear of jeopardizing his chances.

College admission applications generally are due on Jan. 1 or Jan. 15, and so far application volume for undergraduate admission has jumped 22% from pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the Common App as of Nov. 16.

And yet, "applications do not mean enrollment," said Preston Magouirk, a data scientist at the Common App, a consortium which lets students apply to multiple schools using the same form.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, undergraduate enrollment is down roughly 8%, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center — with the schools serving low- and middle-income students seeing the largest declines.

As the pandemic's economic impact continues to weigh unevenly on the economy, college is becoming a path only for those who can afford it, reports show.

"The students that are applying are from wealthier backgrounds," said Angel Perez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. 

Each college application generally has a fee, which can be as much as $75 or more. 

For colleges, more applications mean more revenue. And there are other benefits, as well: As the number of applicants rise, the admission rate will fall, making it even more selective.

Many students don't apply to more schools because of affordability.
Angel Perez
CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling

Rim advises clients to apply to 15 to 18 institutions, including a near-split of safety, target and reach schools. Applying to too many is a waste of time and resources on top of schoolwork and extracurriculars, he said.

Rim also said application fees rarely factor into the equation among the clients he works with. At Command Education, families can spend more than $85,000 for 12 months of counseling. Multi-year packages, starting in ninth grade, "could be well into the six figures," Rim said.

"Those students that are getting a leg up, whether that's private counseling, it does widen the gap between the haves and have-nots," said Robert Franek, editor in chief of The Princeton Review.

For other students, these fees quickly add up and can deter them from applying at all.

"Many students don't apply to more schools because of affordability," Perez said. "Low-income students may not even know they can get a fee waiver."

Only about 18% of applicants have received a fee waiver so far this year, a rough proxy of financial need, according to the Common App's Magouirk.

"We saw an increase in the number of students who requested a fee waiver relative to two years ago, but that increase was not nearly as large as the number of applicants that never received a fee waiver," he said.

Fewer students are also filing out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which serves as the gateway to all federal money, including loans, work-study and grants.

Among applications for the upcoming academic year, about 60% of applicants are from the most affluent communities, while only 5% are from the lowest-income areas, the Common App found.

"You really have lost a generation of young people," Perez said. Further, those who put college on hold are less likely to return at all, he added.

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