How Do College Admissions Officers Decide Who Gets Accepted?

Key Takeaways:

  • Application review and screening is done differently at different colleges.
  • The student's academic profile is important, but the college will also be considering its own goals.
  • Colleges are often making admissions and financial aid decisions to attract the best students while also maximizing their revenue.

Many high school students want to know the secret to a successful college application. Will you get a competitive edge from a well-written essay? A stellar interview with a college admissions counselor? A glowing recommendation letter? Or are those all secondary to a top-of-the-class GPA, impressive test scores, and a wide variety of extracurricular activities?

The answer is all of the above...and a few unknowns (to students, that is). Don’t get us wrong: A student’s GPA and test scores, extracurriculars, and college application essay are incredibly important in getting accepted. But beyond those parts of the college application process, many factors that influence whether a student gets accepted remain mysterious to students and parents. Given that the college application process can be expensive, time-consuming, and stressful, the more you know in advance, the better you’ll be able to target colleges and universities that will be a good fit, from both an educational and financial perspective.

At Edmit, we want to shed light on the college admissions process so students can make more informed decisions when choosing where to go to college. How does the college admissions process work? Read on for an inside look.  

How Do College Admissions Officers Decide Who Gets Accepted?

State schools with huge athletic programs, small liberal arts colleges, internationally renowned conservatories--no two colleges will have identical admissions processes. In addition to a student’s academics, extracurriculars, application essay, recommendation letters, and thank-you letter, admissions counselors look at their own college itself, considering enrollment projections, student body diversity, faculty and course curriculum volume, and recruitment goals. Each factor will be unique to a given college or university--and each unique student application weighed in this context.

According to Peterson’s, when a student’s college application is submitted, it typically goes through a pre-screening process, an initial check to eliminate applicants who have not met minimum institutional standards. Standards are usually based on test scores, GPA, enrollment quotas, and other predetermined criteria. Student applications that move forward then go to committee, where college admissions counselors read applications and determine who gets accepted or rejected. High-performing or “good fit” students may go straight to a director of admission for acceptance, whereas some applicants (if there are split verdicts) may go through several rounds of evaluation among the admissions team, according to CollegeData.

So, how do college admissions officers decide which high school students to accept? In sum, with each student application, college counselors evaluate: Is this a well-rounded student who will be a good fit for our college community? And will this student help the college reach its own admissions, retention, graduation, and alumni goals? 

What Happens When a College is Underenrolled?

An underenrolled college refers to a college that does not have enough incoming students to meet their enrollment goals. Underenrollment, according to The Hechinger Report, stem from a dip in the birth rate a generation ago, an improving economy that lures more potential students into the workforce, and the rising cost of education that may make college unaffordable to many students. As such, in a conversation with the Boston Globe, Edmit co-founders Nick Ducoff and Sabrina Manville discussed how “many good colleges are scrambling to fill seats in their freshman classes.” Underenrollment leads to increased recruitment efforts--and more bargaining power for student applicants.  

To increase enrollment, colleges may also take a hard look at their tuition and fee structure, and implement tuition resets or offer tuition discounts to entice potential students.

Additionally, to support increased recruitment, underenrolled colleges may make capital investments to attract potential students, such as funding innovative academic programs, such as new curriculum or majors; new athletic facilities or dormitory improvements; or state-of-the-art labs and classrooms equipped with the latest technology.  

What are Tuition-Dependent Colleges?

A tuition-dependent college brings in its largest percentage of income through tuition, rather than federal or state subsidies or private endowments. When a college is underenrolled, less tuition money is coming in, and the viability of tuition-dependent colleges is at risk. Keeping enrollment high becomes integral to keeping the college or university in business.

The reduction of public and private investment in higher education is also a large factor in making a college more tuition dependent. Public universities are typically the first to consider tuition hikes, as their funding model is heavily based on income from taxes and government funding, which has declined in recent years. Private colleges may count reduced endowments and/or fewer alumni donations as factors in raising tuition. Regardless of source, as funding gets cut, tuition increases result, tuition then becomes more important to keeping a college running, and (unless outside funding is restored), the cycle continues.  

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, funding for public two- and four-year colleges is nearly $10 billion below what it was before the 2008 recession, and “the price of attending public colleges has risen significantly faster than the growth in median income.” Unfortunately, as colleges become more tuition dependent, they may also become increasingly unaffordable to students.  

How do you identify if a tuition-dependent college is on shaky footing? While specific data may be slim, you can still get an overall idea of the financial health of the colleges that interest you: Start with the Institute of Higher Education, which compiles a list of “risky colleges” (e.g., institutions of higher education where the federal government has concerns over its financial standing). Forbes also calculates an annual financial grade report, based on aggregated US Department of Education and school reporting data. Check both reports to see if your potential college is in good financial standing. 

What’s a Target Discount Rate?

When a college determines its target discount rate, they’re looking at the college’s average overall net price (the amount actually paid by students) divided by the listed tuition price (or sticker price) for all students. Different students pay different amounts to attend college, based on expected family contribution and specific financial aid packages, and the school allocates money so that their average revenue per student hits what they need to break even.

In the 2015-16 academic year, average tuition discount rates rose to 48.6 percent for first-time full-time freshmen, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers, which surveyed more than 400 colleges and universities. (Note this is the average, not the target discount rate.) In other words, colleges routed nearly 50 percent of incoming tuition dollars into financial aid (grants, scholarships, or discounts) to enroll these students.

Like many parts of the college admissions process, getting the target discount rate is similar to what Ducoff refers to as a “Goldilocks” situation--or an exercise in getting things “just right” for the specific college: If the target discount rate is too low, the school may become underenrolled. If the target discount rate is too high, the school won’t break even and may need to make tuition adjustments or increase enrollment levels in the following academic years.   

How Can Students Get More Money for College?

How will you know if a college is underenrolled and/or has a high target discount rate? While it may be gauche to ask directly, you can find out more by researching schools that have generous financial aid programs and/or by appealing a financial aid award letter. With college admissions, once you’ve been accepted, you should feel empowered to advocate for a tuition discount or increased financial aid in the form of additional grants and scholarships, or more money for work-study programs. You never know if a college is underenrolled and has funding to spare--and unless you ask, you may be leaving money on the table.

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