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2 changes to your admissions policies that can increase access and enrollment

February 2, 2022, By Madeleine Rhyneer, Vice President of Consulting Services and Dean of Enrollment Management

The National Student Clearinghouse’s recent report that college enrollment continues to decline is not a surprise to most enrollment leaders. The impact of The Great Pandemic that will roll right into The Great Demographic Decline is already a widely-known cautionary tale. 2021 was the second consecutive year in which fewer students enrolled in college, a 3.1% decline (465,300 students) over fall 2020 and a total 6.6% decline since fall 2019.

Amid the ongoing bad news about traditional and adult-age students not enrolling in undergraduate programs, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and the National Association for Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) released a new report, Toward a More Equitable Future for Postsecondary Access. The focus of the report is the systemic racism that Black Americans experience when it comes to college access, but their recommendations are broadly applicable for those who wish to think about the college admissions process from a different perspective.


I read the report with great interest, because events of the last two years suggest that it won’t be enough for colleges to assume that they will inherently become more diverse as the racial and ethnic composition of the nation changes. The anger and frustration about entrenched racism and the systems that support it require that we take a different approach to fulfilling our nation’s promises of a better future. One of these is access to college and the many benefits that accrue to those who earn undergraduate degrees. Here are a few recommendations from the NACAC/NASFAA report and our EAB experts that can help colleges and universities improve access and grow enrollment among Black students and across the board.

Reduce or eliminate application fees where possible

The recommendations in the NACAC/NASFAA report are practical and many of them are immediately actionable. They also echo advice that EAB has shared with enrollment partners for many years; removing barriers in the admission and financial aid application processes increases the likelihood of achieving headcount and net tuition revenue goals. This is especially important at a time of heightened economic anxiety and uncertainty. In our latest survey of prospective students, nearly 60% indicated that the pandemic has increased their concerns about college costs.


EAB’s own research has demonstrated that reducing or eliminating friction in the admissions process-meaning unnecessary or overly burdensome steps-has a positive impact on application rates from all populations and particularly for those for whom college is not a foregone conclusion. We sometimes come up against institutional policies and practices grounded in the belief that applying to college shouldn’t be easy, and that it is necessary to make students jump through a series of hoops to “prove” themselves worthy of a place in the class. It may seem counterintuitive, but making the process easier for the student appeals to applicants of all ability levels rather than the assumed more modest academic performers.

A couple of the specific ideas presented in the NACAC/NASFAA report that correlate with EAB research results include reducing or eliminating the application fee and considering application changes that realign the criteria used to make admission decisions with student opportunities vs. university expectations.

I recognize that many private institutions have eliminated application fees and that public institutions may be using the application fee revenue to compensate for reduced state support. We all appreciate that there is a material staff cost associated with processing and evaluating applications. However, application fees are a real barrier for low-income students who don’t know if they will be admitted to an institution or will be able to afford to attend if offered the opportunity. I think of the old example that it’s a bit like asking a potential car buyer to pay $50 to test drive a vehicle. In a buyer’s market, it’s difficult to justify application fees when viewed through the lens of students and families with limited financial resources.

As the report points out, and as I have seen firsthand in my work with students, fee waivers are always a possibility but obtaining one is just another hurdle to jump in a world where there are so many different processes. Hard to believe, but students really don’t want to make applying for college their full-time job and neither do colleges who want them to be focused on academic success. And no one wants to be put in the position of proving they are poor, just another painful reminder of how the future may be stacked against them.

Reevaluate application requirements

NACAC and NASFAA encourage practitioners to reimagine the college application process such that the burden on the student is minimized and that sharing information about the student’s academic experience may be delivered via simplified systems. A more immediate step that EAB encourages is to “journey map” the application and aid processes from a student and family perspective. Start with a clean whiteboard and no preconceived notions of “we’ve always done it this way.” That thinking stifles creativity and perpetuates legacy processes far beyond their useful life.


If the goal is increased access and removing friction in the application process, it’s a great idea to review every question asked on the application for admission. This isn’t possible in states where there is a mandated public university application and for institutions who use the Common Application exclusively. However, our enrollment experts encourage partners to think carefully about the value of each question: how will the information be used? Why does it matter? Is it necessary to have the answer to make an effective admission decision? Again, it is counterintuitive – but in my experience, when I streamlined the application and reduced the number of questions, it appealed to students with exceptional academic achievement, perhaps because they appreciated the respect for their time.


Ultimately, students do not want to attend your institution more because you made it difficult to apply. Consider having informal conversations with newly enrolled students next fall. You’ll get the halo effect of their excitement to be part of your community, but you can also tease out the challenges they faced as they applied for admission to you and other schools.

Toward a More Equitable Future for Postsecondary Access provides thoughtful advice on removing admission barriers for Black Americans at this critical moment when we are confronting the impact of systemic racism in every aspect of society. Adapting the admission process to address these roadblocks will improve the application experience. I applaud NACAC and NASFA for their continued leadership challenging the status quo to improve college access for students.

Madeleine Rhyneer

Vice President of Consulting Services and Dean of Enrollment Management

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