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It’s time for colleges to change how they enroll students

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As colleges and universities nationwide conclude a semester unlike any other, the fall remains uncertain. Not only are they unsure whether they can open their campuses or will need to keep courses online, they are unclear about how many students will enroll. And in the face of a financial crisis that is affecting millions of American households, a growing number of admitted students are opting for more affordable institutions — or those closer to home.

Consequently, many selective colleges and universities are admitting far more students from waitlists than in recent memory. Amid significant budgetary pressures, institutions may be tempted to prioritize waitlisted students who are able to pay full tuition, room and board over countless, talented young applicants in need of financial aid. If they succumb to that temptation, educational opportunity could be severely curtailed at a time when an increasing number of students will require financial assistance. 

As it stands, there is evidence that many colleges waitlist talented students with financial need while at the same time directly admitting wealthier applicants. And, as waitlists have grown longer in recent years, the chance of admission for any of the relatively large number of waitlisted lower-income students has moved in the opposite direction. Even when admitted off of a waitlist, lower-income students face an additional burden to quickly accept the offer. This leaves them without adequate time to determine if they can afford the estimated family contribution, manage the anticipated debt burden or handle the full costs associated with moving away from home.   

It does not need to be that way. Beginning right now, colleges committed to educational opportunity should prioritize those students on their waitlists who reflect their targeted diversity — and make clear that they will meet their full financial need. In this time of prevailing uncertainty, colleges should recognize that students require adequate time to consider their options, deserving full clarity about the full financial implications of matriculating in the fall and remaining enrolled through graduation.

In the process, selective colleges can become more powerful engines of opportunity than ever before while insulating themselves against what may be years of unpredictable enrollments. But reimagining waitlist management as a tool for increasing opportunity represents just one component of a set of sorely needed changes to longstanding processes that disadvantage talented, lower-income students.   

Another to consider: Early decision. Over the past several decades, selective colleges have admitted increasing numbers of students in the early decision window, some filling nearly half of their freshman classes before the regular admissions process begins. This strategy to boost the yield of admitted students has been linked to increased enrollment of wealthy students, given that lower-income students often need to wait until the regular decision window to compare multiple financial aid offers.

Instead, colleges can work with organizations like the National College Advising Corps and College Point – starting now – to connect pipelines of talented, lower-income students to reimagined early admissions processes. Such approaches should include commitments to meet the full financial need of lower-income students accepted at this stage and field applications from community college transfers who are generally considered only after the regular admissions process is complete and most financial aid has already been promised. 

In addition, selective colleges can help propel transfer students to success by accepting more of their credits. While research shows that tens of thousands of these students have the grade point averages needed to excel at even the most rigorous universities, their academic records are too often dismissed by four-year schools. On average, community college students lose nearly half of their hard-earned credits after transferring, serving as a barrier that leaves just 14 percent of community college students able to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of entering their two-year institutions. 

In what is likely to be an era of unprecedented student mobility among institutions, colleges should change restrictive credit transfer policies. This must include efforts to treat pass-fail credits earned this spring as any other, recognizing the adverse effects that the rapid move to online instruction has had on students. And, as a part of this shift, institutions should not only accept credits, but also maximize the number of transferred credits that can be applied toward specific degree programs, recognizing that lower-income students cannot afford to repeat classes they have already passed. 

With the need growing every day, selective colleges and universities have an opportunity to rethink how they fulfill their public mission, starting with a commitment to diversity as they choose from their waitlists. That initial step can catalyze other changes throughout the admissions system, sending an important signal to diverse students that their talent is valued. This in turn will expand the pool of students on which selective colleges can rely to meet enrollment and sustainability goals.  

At a time when future enrollment seems more uncertain than ever, identifying and recruiting more talent is not just the right thing to do — but a smart move as well.

Josh Wyner is vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of its College Excellence Program. Martin Kurzweil is the director of the Educational Transformation Program at Ithaka S+R. They serve together on the steering committee for the American Talent Initiative, an organization dedicated to expanding opportunity for lower-income students at high-graduation-rate colleges.

Correction: A previous version of this piece stated that U.S. News & World Report uses the number of early-decision students a college or university admits as a factor in its Best Colleges rankings. It does not. 

Tags College admissions in the United States coronavirus Education Higher education in the United States Student financial aid University and college admissions wait list

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