The criteria that matter most for college admissions

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The criteria that matter most for college admissions

Race and ethnicity have little influence over college admissions, report finds

Fairness of admissions criteria has been grabbing headlines lately. But the new National Association for College Admission Counseling‘s (NACAC) 2019 State of College Admission report suggests that students’ personal characteristics—like race, ethnicity, or ability to pay—have little influence over whether they are admitted to college.

To compile the report, NACAC asked colleges about seven student characteristics and how important they are in admissions. The report suggests that despite recent debates over race-based affirmative action, students’ personal characteristics have limited or no influence over colleges’ admissions decisions.


of colleges say that race and ethnicity have "no influence" over admissions decisions
of colleges say that race and ethnicity have “no influence” over admissions decisions

In fact, among the colleges who participated in the study, 58.4% say that race and ethnicity have “no influence” over admissions decisions. However, the one personal characteristic colleges say they do pay attention to is first-generation status, with 5.5% of colleges responding that first-gen status has considerable influence over their admissions decisions—up from 4.2% last year. And another 25.5% of colleges say that first-gen status has moderate influence over admissions decisions, compared to 12.6% last year.

More important to colleges are academic factors, according to the report. For instance, nearly 81% of colleges report that a student’s grades in all courses have considerable influence over their admissions decisions. And more than half of colleges surveyed report that SAT and ACT test scores, as well as strength of high school curriculum, also have considerable influence over their decisions. Of the top 16 factors considered by colleges, just one—demonstrated interest—is not based on academics.

The criteria that matters


of early decision applicants are admitted
of early decision applicants are admitted


of early action applicants are admitted
of early action applicants are admitted

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik notes that over the last ten years, the criteria that matter most in admissions decisions have evolved. Jaschik cites the 2018 NACAC report, which found that the importance of students’ grades in all courses has gone up since 2007—when just 52% of colleges ranked students’ grades as having considerable importance over their admissions decisions. Over the same time period, the importance of test scores has steadily declined, likely due to colleges’ growing interest in going test-optional.

But there is one factor—unrelated to personal characteristics and academic factors—that may improve students’ odds of being admitted to a college: applying early. Jaschik writes that both early decision and early action options are increasingly popular among prospective students, especially among those applying to colleges with lower admit rates.

According to the latest report, among all colleges with early decision, the admit rate for early decision applicants is 61%, compared with 49% for regular-decision applicants. And among all colleges with early action, the admit rate for early admit applicants was 73%, compared with 64% for regular applicants.

The NACAC vote

But the recent changes to NACAC’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices (CEPP) could affect these trends, according to EAB enrollment experts. For instance, schools may now offer incentives for early-decision candidates, including special perks, says Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president of consulting services and dean of enrollment management at EAB. They can now also recruit students who have already made deposits or otherwise committed to a college or university.

While it’s not yet clear how changes to the CEPP will affect admissions, Rhyneer notes that she has spoken with enrollment leaders who are concerned that “the change in rules might compel enrollment managers (EMs) to engage in in hard-sell recruitment practices that are not in students’ best interests.” She adds that EMs are also concerned that the rules could raise enrollment deposits, contribute to the barriers facing transfer students, and lead to an increase in the summertime “poaching” of committed admits.

Alex Bloom, associate director of research for EAB’s Enrollment Management Forum, predicts that early decision special offers will become more common as a result of the changes. “The new ability to have special offers, paired with an increase in uncertainty in the summer months, may create an incentive for some universities to implement Early Decision deadlines if they don’t already,” Bloom wrote in a recent blog post. “Expect offers like special housing accommodations, early registration for classes, or even added financial aid incentives to signal to students that if they are willing to make a binding commitment, there may be a deal just for them.”

Sources: Bloom, EAB, 9/6/19; EAB blogs, 10/11/19; Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 11/12/18; NACAC report, accessed 10/31/19; NACAC report, accessed 12/11/18

Read more about how colleges make admissions decisions

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