College Pete

NEW NACAC REPORT! What REALLY Influences Admissions Decisions

NEW NACAC REPORT! What REALLY Influences Admissions Decisions


I’ve just pored through the National Assoc. of College Admission’s Counselor’s (NACAC’s) annual “State of College Admission” report.

I’m going to talk about three themes that pop up frequently when it comes to the NACAC annual report:

  • Real Access/Admit Rates,
  • ‘Ability to Pay’ and Admissions Chances
  • Diversity/’Class-Building’ in Admissions Decisions

College Access and Real Admissions Rates

Contrary to what you’ve feared (or perhaps been led to believe by a hyper-manic and hyperbolic college industry), getting a post-secondary degree is truly NOT beyond any child’s reach. We know this and it’s reflected in our programs… to date, close to 2,000 YCC families (of all incomes and academic abilities) have gotten into, afforded and graduated (sans debt) from great colleges and post-secondary programs around the country.

But you don’t need to take our word for it; our claims are backed by independent and empirical data.

Case in point, according to the NACAC report, over 80% of colleges admit more than 50% of their applicants, and the average admit rate is about 65% (down from 66% a year earlier). 80%, folks! And, many of these are excellent schools with great educational outcomes. Sure, some of the top top top schools boast ever-competitive and single-digit admit rates, and thus they grab the headlines and shape the narrative, but as the data shows, it’s a false narrative, or at least one that is not close to universal.

Now, since we’re parents as well as professionals, we do understand (at a very deeply personal level) that getting into a school that your child would like to attend… and getting out of it with a degree that they’ll use, and without losing your life savings or getting into tremendous debt in the process, feels impossible.

On this point, we want to share with you that creating this type of fear in consumers is one of the marketing objectives of the higher education machine. As you know from our materials, higher education is a huge and largely profitable business (even in nonprofits, there can be excess revenue). Any good business usually has a good marketing strategy. Higher Ed is no exception!

For the past decade plus, many universities have been intentionally trying to raise their national profile, prestige (and their ranking) in two specific ways:

1. They solicit more applications to make them appear more difficult to access. They do this in a variety of ways, starting with the fact that we’ve seen an explosion of technical admissions consortiums (like the Common App, the Coalition App and/or the HBCU Common App). These ‘associations’ are designed to make it literally as easy as point-and-click for students to apply to multiple colleges. There’s also been an explosion in the number of colleges that de-emphasize testing in the admissions process… and with it, a predictable corresponding explosion of applicants at the schools that do so. Finally, there’s an ever closer affiliate relationship being drawn between K-12 testing services, including some more well known ones like ACT (PLAN) and College Board (SSAT/PSAT), that enable colleges to begin to market to younger and younger students.

Unfortunately, without independent information, most students make two mistakes: first, they apply ‘everywhere’ – we’re seeing application inflation grow with each academic year. The second mistake is that everyone’s following the same herd. Students are only applying to the colleges that are most top of mind… the ones that have reached out to them or they’ve heard of over and over again. That’s why the same 50 colleges come up in conversation among the 3,800 out there.

Ability To Pay and Admissions Decisions

So many of our families are concerned that ‘checking the financial aid box’ on their child’s college application will doom their child’s admissions chances. The NACAC survey was noteworthy in that it sought to empirically evaluate the role that “ability to pay” has on admissions decisions. Here’s what they found: only 1.2% of Admissions representatives and counselors cited ‘Ability to Pay’ as having Considerable Influence, while only 4.2% cited it as having Moderable Influence. 81% said that ability to pay had No Influence in their decision.

The reason for this is again rooted in the higher education business model. For the decade plus that we’ve been tracking the data, we’ve seen a confirmed trend that shows that schools have raised ‘Gross’ prices, then offered discounts or rebates in the form of Institutional financial aid grants and scholarships to reach a more palatable NET price. Like admissions marketing, differential pricing initiatives (price elasticity, net tuition goals, etc.) are thoughtfully constructed and strategically implemented to meet specific admissions/recruiting and retention goals. Consider that while gross tuition has risen 252%, the discount rate is now 50%. We’ve written about pricing and financial aid extensively and encourage you to search our blog if interested in learning more.

Bottom line is that ability to pay plays a small role in admissions for most students because a small number of full pay students (read our analysis of differential pricing here) subsidize the cost for the majority – and because financial aid scholarships and grants are utilized to attract and retain the vast majority of students (more than 2/3 receive some rebate in the form of a grant or scholarship). Admissions counselors and their business offices know and PLAN FOR the fact that most families will need some assistance when it comes to paying for their college – they need grants, loans and scholarship to make it happen. Very few families have $280K hanging around in the coffers to pay for 4 years of private school – and that’s just for one kid! Financial aid is an integral part of the college admissions process, a step that colleges expect students to follow. So don’t be afraid to check the Yes box on the application for admission that you will be applying for need-based aid. Conversely, if you are/can be a full pay student, there are some places and instances where you may have an admissions advantage (akin for example to being a legacy and applying early decision). The higher ed market is a nuanced one with unwritten rules that are never universal. You have to know those rules and where you’ll be able to bend them to your advantage BEFORE your child applies to any school. That’s where independent research and guidance becomes so critical!

Diversity in Admissions Decisions

Finally, the NACAC report is noteworthy in its evaluation of the impact of different factors on admissions decisions. While certain factors are not surprising (like grades and test scores), it’s the impact of race and ethnicity that may surprise some, especially given the widely followed Harvard discrimination case regarding admissions of Asian students. According to a survey of admissions officers, only 2.4% cited race/ethnicity as Considerably Noteworthy in their decision-making process, while first-generation in college status was cited by 4.2% of admissions counselors. Academic factors such as grades (80.9%) and test scores (52.3%) were considered much more influential, which is what we would expect. Ask any school counselor or independent counselor what most influences admissions decisions, and the answer should be grades and test scores, with academic rigor intertwined with a student’s grades.

On the subject of race/ethnicity, I often get questions from parents who wonder if checking “Hispanic” will boost or hurt their child’s admissions chances. My comment, which is reinforced by this data, is usually that we are dealing on the margins. Thus the answer lies more with the student’s grades, rigor and test scores. Consider that in any applicant pool, between 70% (on the low end) and 92% (more as the norm) will meet the school’s academic threshold. Ethnicity, therefore is considered along with a number of other factors that a school utilizes to form a class that will contribute to their university. These factors are secondary to academics (which is always the first sort) and will vary in importance by school – and frankly by year. Also considered could be factors such as socioeconomic status (income + parents’ education), geographic location (SE v NE), alumni status, school need and other factors beyond the applicant’s ability to control.

There are, however, secondary factors that are within the applicant’s ability to influence… such as a student’s demonstrated interest. In fact, “demonstrated interest” was cited by 15.5% of admissions counselors as having Considerable Influence, while 21.4% cited this factor as having Moderate Influence. That’s a lot! When an applicant is being considered, an admissions office will weigh all of these factors holistically as opposed to treating any as a standalone characteristic or criteria. The weight assigned to each factor will vary by school.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember this: admissions is a human process, a personal process. Despite the technology and the consultants, inside an admissions room (and the financial aid room), are people who are making decisions about other people.

Our students know that their job as an applicant is to make it personal. Our best advice: Do your job in school, get the best grades you can, get the best test score possible, pursue your passions (whatever they are) outside of the classroom, and then make sure that the admissions counselor at Dream School U knows who you are and is aware of your deep enthusiasm for the school. And know that even if you do all that, only 5% will get into Harvard (unless you’re a legacy, in which case you’ve got a 25% chance). That’s the way it is at Harvard, but…

There are plenty of great colleges not named Harvard (and ones where you’ll actually have professors teaching your classes). I just met with an exceptional 11th grader with nearly straight A’s on her transcript (she has only 2 B’s since 9th grade), and she’s a nervous wreck because she thinks she won’t get into a top school. She’s constantly comparing herself to her peers. She may or may not get into her top choices Georgetown or Boston College, but she has a good chance there and at countless others. With the right admissions strategy, she will also have plenty of other, excellent academic and AFFORDABLE options to choose among. And she’ll have the right information to sleep well at night.

The key is having the right information, to know what advantages you’ll have and what obstacles may stand in your way. If you have this at your disposal, you’ll have the right plan for your child and the confidence to execute that plan.

If you want more information on finding, getting into, and affording college, then grab our free “Ultimate College Guide” and financial aid case studies report at

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