In a year without admissions tests, elite college applications balloon

by Jeremy

Dive Brief:

  • New York University has received over 100,000 applications for first-year students hoping to start college next fall, a 20% increase from last year. It will enroll only about 6,500 of them.
  • The announcement mirrors news of enormous growth in early admission requests at other elite institutions. Elimination of standardized testing requirements could be causing some of the gains, experts say.
  • But recent data suggest the schools are largely outliers and that students from historically disadvantaged groups still lag their peers in crucial application benchmarks.

Dive Insight:

According to data shared with Higher Ed Dive, the Common Application reported a 15% year-over-year increase in first-year applications submitted through Jan. 5 at its member schools. Around 900 schools use the application, including NYU, a useful proxy for nationwide enrollment patterns.


The increase in unique first-year applications was more minor — at 8% — suggesting the overall gains stemmed at least in part from students applying to more colleges. But the rate varies widely by student group. Earlier reports found first-generation and low-income students were submitting the Common Application at lower rates than they were a year ago. Though the latest data shows they’ve since caught up, their gains lag those of their peers (see table).

Unique applications by student status

2020-21 applications% change from 2019-20
Fee waiver recipient388,5012.1%
Non-fee waiver recipient540,19713.3%
All unique applicants928,6988.3%
Source: Common Application

This year’s application season is unusual. In response to the pandemic, hundreds of schools waived standardized testing requirements as part of their applications.

“[H]aving one less hurdle in applying allows for more students to consider a broader set of choices,” Brett Schraeder, principal of financial aid optimization at consultancy EAB, said in an email. Schraeder credited the testing change as a likely contributor to NYU’s gains, citing its more than 20% year-over-year increases in first-generation applicants and those from underrepresented minority groups.

Research suggests private liberal arts colleges receive “a significant increase” in applications after implementing test-optional policies, Karina Salazar, a higher education professor at the University of Arizona, said in an email. Salazar noted that change likely contributed to NYU’s gains.

Growth in early admissions decisions over the last decade could also be a factor, Salazar said. Around 17% of NYU applications were early decision submissions, according to a university release. Some schools also pushed back their early application deadlines, leaving more time for students to apply.

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