Where Applications to College Have Swelled During the Past Decade

Admissions officers at North Carolina A&T State University sifted through 6,216 applications to build its fall 2011 entering class. A decade later, according to federal data, the institution’s applicant pool of first-time undergraduate students was more than three times that.

The 246-percent increase in applications to North Carolina A&T reflects a broader trend in higher education: Over the last decade, the volume of applications submitted to the nation’s colleges has mushroomed, according to a Chronicle analysis of recently released U.S. Department of Education data.

The 1,229 public and private nonprofit four-year colleges in the Chronicle’s analysis received 11.4 million applications for the fall of 2021. That’s an increase of 46 percent from the 7.8 million applications those same institutions saw for the fall of 2011. The increase was concentrated among a smaller subset of institutions in The Chronicle’s data set: Nearly 880 colleges — or about seven in 10 — saw their application volume rise during the decade.

At least some of the growth in applications in recent years can be attributed to more colleges introducing test-optional policies during the pandemic. With that barrier to college attendance stripped away, the number of applications received by some institutions — particularly highly selective ones — has swelled. At many historically Black colleges and universities, like North Carolina A&T, application pools have been buoyed by a surge in student interest along with record levels of financial investment.

Also at play is an increase in applications per student. A recent report from the Common Application, which has more than 1,000 member colleges, showed that the average number of applications submitted rose from 4.63 in 2013-14 to 6.22 in 2021-22. The share of students applying to more than 10 colleges roughly doubled, to 17 percent, between 2014-15 and 2021-22, the report said.

The application data reported to the Department of Education also reveals some sharp declines, mostly among private colleges and institutions whose enrollment in the fall of 2021 was fewer than 5,000 students.

Here’s what else we found:

Note: This analysis includes public and private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities that had a Carnegie Classification of doctoral, master’s, or baccalaureate in both 2011 and 2021 and that had at least 100 applications in both years. Application figures are for first-time, degree-seeking undergraduates for the fall 2021 admissions cycle.

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