Why ED Predictions Were Off-Base

The Predictions For most of 2020, conventional wisdom held that applications would be down this year, for a few reasons:

In March and April, nearly every element of the economy plummeted, so it was assumed fewer families would be able to afford college tuition. This was expected to hit ED especially hard, since families would not want to commit without knowing how much financial aid they’d get.

Many colleges expected that their applicant pools would be more geographically limited, with fewer students willing to travel long distances.

International applications would be down, for obvious reasons. Colleges might have fewer spots because of a large number of students admitted last year opting to take gap years, in addition to political policy disfavoring certain nations since 2016.

The Reality The reality was the opposite of expectations, especially at the most selective colleges: Northeastern’s ED pool was up 5%; their EA pool was up 14%. Boston University’s ED pool was up 12%. Tufts’ was up 17%. And these numbers were surpassed by those of some ultra-selective colleges. Harvard’s (restricted) EA applications were up 57%; Yale’s REA up 47%. Penn’s ED applications were up 47%. Most striking: MIT: up 62% for (unrestricted) early action.

It’s also likely that these schools’ EA numbers were inflated in part because Princeton suspended EA this year.

Some reasons: While lower-income Americans are struggling, many families in the middle and upper tiers have done unexpectedly well during the pandemic, thanks in part to the stock market and real estate market. The New York Times reports that applications for financial aid are down in the aggregate this year: many families who would have applied for financial aid in normal years are not applying to college at all this year. People have settled into Zoom life and accepted that either travel will return to normal soon, or Zoom will suffice. Thus, the geographic concerns have not panned out.

Re: international students: Tufts’ rep said that they got a flood of international applicants who submitted after it became apparent that Biden was going to win right before their November 15 ED deadline (assuming that a Biden administration would be more welcoming to international students than a second Trump administration).

Most importantly: Test-optional policies have increased applications significantly at many schools. Why? Students with relatively low scores applied to longshot schools on the merits of grades, rigor, recs, and activities. UCs and Cal States reflect this trend dramatically. Preliminary numbers show that UC applications are up 15% and CSU applications are down 5% (with numbers even lower at low-income CSU campuses). UCs skew wealthier while CSU skew poorer. The UCs previously relied heavily on standardized testing, so the absence of that requirement surely had a major impact on students with strong grades but weak test scores.

Admission Rates All this means that admission rates at many colleges were unexpectedly (by all) even lower than in years past. Here’s a chart with application numbers for some notable schools. Harvard is not on that list; it already gets too much attention in popular lore. But their numbers are instructive: their EA admission rate was 7.6%. This is astonishingly low for EA. That’s because applications were up, and they chose to admit fewer students than in years past. Here’s a quote from The Crimson: “The College invited 747 of 10,086 early applicants to join its Class of 2025. Last year, the College admitted 895 of 6,424 applicants. Applications increased by 57 percent from 2020, while the College admitted 148 fewer students.” Basically, this means that Harvard admitted only recruited athletes, legacies, first-generation students to whom they can offer generous financial aid (rightfully so), and extraordinary, unusual applicants. They admitted the students they felt were necessary, and they’re letting everyone else chill until regular decision. We can assume that case was similar at other ultra-selective EA schools. Another important note: After assuring us that the bubble of 2020 grad gap-year students would not impact this year's seniors, colleges are saying little. Many colleges may accommodate everyone by adding adding housing or summer sessions in 2022. Let's hope for the best.


Much data adapted from Josh Stephens, California IEC.