3 Key Findings About College Admissions

May 07, 2015

If your vice president for enrollment looks haggard these days, maybe it’s because the percentage of accepted applicants who enroll keeps going down, complicating those all-important revenue projections. Or maybe she’s scrambling to attract more transfer students to the campus. The best strategy for recruiting foreign students? Everyone’s trying to figure that out, too.

Those are a few of the challenges described in a new report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, known as NACAC. The report suggests that enrollment leaders must be "nimble and fluid," says Jeff Fuller, director of student recruitment at the University of Houston: "Today it’s about being flexible. You may have to look outside your traditional high-school population to meet your enrollment goals."

Here are three sets of findings from NACAC’s annual "State of College Admission" report:

Yield Rates Are Sliding

Nationally, application surges continue for most colleges, with more than 70 percent reporting year-to-year increases in 10 of the last 15 years. For the fall 2013 admission cycle, 32 percent of freshmen submitted seven or more applications.

As applicant pools expand, uncertainty usually grows. Many colleges have seen their yield rate — the percentage of accepted students who enroll — decline sharply. In the fall 2013 admission cycle, the average institutional yield rate was 35.9 percent, down from an average of 39.5 percent in 2010, and 48.7 percent in 2002.

It’s long been said that enrollment goals are subject to the whims of teenagers. Yet Mr. Fuller, the association’s president, says many decisions about where to enroll now hinge on last-minute conversations students have with their parents about affordability. Sometimes that means students who had planned to attend four-year colleges end up enrolling at community colleges. "Those kinds of conversations," he says, "are definitely playing into yield numbers."

Transfer Students Are Crucial

Many colleges are located in regions where the number of high-school graduates has plateaued. That’s one reason some enrollment officials are deciding to make transfer students a bigger piece of their recruitment puzzle.

Forty-four percent of four-year institutions reported an increase in transfer applicants over the previous five years, and 37.6 percent reported an increase in transfer enrollments. At public institutions, two-thirds of transfer students were previously enrolled at community colleges.

"A lot of us are really seeing the value of these students and what they add to the campus," Mr. Fuller says. "They’ve got a proven history."

As for the future, 58 percent of four-year colleges anticipate that recruiting transfer students will become more important over the next three years. (Public institutions were more likely than private ones to rate the importance of such students highly.) And 80 percent of respondents said their college had admissions counselors who work exclusively with prospective transfer students.

Recruitment Has No Borders

College-bound students everywhere are on the move. Over the last 40 years, the report notes, the number of students enrolled in colleges outside their home countries increased to 4.5 million from 800,000. That number is projected to exceed seven million by 2025.

Meanwhile, more and more foreign-born students are earning diplomas at American high schools. "Recruiting international students," the report says, "is no longer reserved only for those professionals who travel internationally."

All that’s changing the dynamics of colleges’ global outreach. Many colleges that traditionally have not sought international students are now doing so aggressively. For all but the most famous American colleges, that can prove both exciting and challenging. "They’re introducing their institutions," Mr. Fuller says, "to global students who may not know their institutions."

One fact that enrollment officials must consider: American colleges aren’t the only ones recruiting overseas. More American students are pursuing undergraduate degrees abroad than ever before, according to research cited in the report. American colleges, it says, "will need to be increasingly mindful of peer institutions in other countries, in terms of both the competitive and collaborative potential they represent."

Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is