“It’s unsustainable!” That’s how we talk about the price of higher education. But we rarely use these words to refer to the application environment—perhaps we should.

The chart below shows the current application trend for traditional-aged, undergraduate students a­nd their enrolling institutions. Is this trend equally unsustainable?

Application and Admission Trends for First-Time, Full-Time Freshmen (2001 to 2016)

In this 15-year time span, the number of applications per enrollment has nearly doubled for private institutions and increased significantly for publics. The number of admissions an institution has to make to gain one enrollment has followed the same trend.

What does this mean? To put it bluntly, both students and institutions are investing more money, more time, and more energy to end up with essentially the same result.

Is this broad array of choice truly providing more options for more students, or does it just create more work for everyone? Whatever the case may be, it’s an application frenzy for all. We should be asking ourselves whether this greater investment of resources is worth the effort.

More importantly: Are we diverting precious resources away from the educational experience, the fundamental point of education, and into college choice? How can higher education help students navigate choice in a more purposeful way? Can we bend or flatten these trends to make the choice environment more manageable for all involved?

Origins of the Trend

Before we can consider a way to alter the choice environment, we should understand the factors that have been driving this trend:

The Common App. While the Common Application provided the original stimulus for students to apply to multiple institutions, many more online applications, including the Coalition Application, now play a similar role. In addition to application platforms, admissions technology and constituent relationship management (CRM) solutions have vastly improved the process of tracking, nudging, and converting applications. Altogether, technology has made applying to many institutions very easy.

The search industry. A growing search industry has provided greater access to students. Over the past two decades, colleges and universities have pursued top-of-the funnel search strategies that load their inquiry pools with volume in an effort to convert these inquiries to applicants. These relatively unqualified applicants, however, often result in low yield. Thus, we see high application volume and a high number of admissions per enrollment.

Rankings. Another culprit is the incentive to game the U.S. News & World and Report ranking by inflating selectivity with artificially pumped up application volume. While selectivity is only one metric that goes into the overall ranking, institutions have been known to pursue increased rankings by carefully targeting the elements they can influence. It’s our belief that this is a minor influence as institutions are moving away from a focus on reputation and toward a focus on student success in recent years.

Student anxiety. Students are feeling intense pressure not only to be accepted on their academic merits, but also to find a financial fit. Thus, their college application lists have expanded to include financial safety and reach schools in addition to academic safety and reach schools. The result is a broader set of schools to hedge all of their bets.

What can you do about it?

If students and institutions continue to feel anxiety and uncertainty about each other, this trend will continue. Efforts to solve this puzzle should seek to reduce this. But how?

Let go of ever increasing application volume.

You don’t need more applications, you need the right applications. Artificially stimulating applications by waiving application fees for academically gifted students might bring the application in the door, but take a hard look at the data to see what these strategies are actually yielding. If they are cranking up the numbers, but resulting in few students for your institution, then they are making more work for your team.

Your team could better use that time to work with best-fit appliers to your institution. Seek out precision data that tells you who these applicants are. If you are looking to improve your profile, make incremental improvements at the edges of that fit. What would the right-size application volume be for your institution? One that is healthy, comprised of largely best-fit applicants, and doesn’t overtax your staff with unqualified applications.

Focus on middle-of-the-funnel strategies.

A right-sized application volume will lead to appropriately scaled communication and recruiting strategies. More importantly, these strategies can focus on identifying highly engaged students— building on information learned about students’ Prospective Undergraduate Mindsets—and following through with personally meaningful content or outreach.

The time period between application, the admission decision, and the enrollment decision, is your institution’s chance to alleviate student anxiety by showing them their potential pathway. If you have to handle too much volume to deal with very low yield, you risk the loss of personalization.

Communicate with transparency and humanity.

You must let students know that you care and that you are investing in this exchange. Our Survey of Admitted Students showed us that communications savvy is a threshold requirement for Generation Z. Being great at digital and social will not win you any students, it will merely stop them from looking elsewhere.

Nevertheless, excellent in-person communications can push decisions over the top. Tight work between communications and admissions staff is necessary to make the connection with each of these students.

The Bottom Line

Systemically, higher education must consider the balance between expanding access to students who need it while keeping stress levels in check. This means creating an engaging, manageable, resource-responsible application process for all involved. It takes guts to say “we need fewer applications!” and one institution acting alone won’t change the current application environment. Precision data science and diligent adherence to personalized communication and recruiting strategies, however, can help your institution make the shift.

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