A College Admissions Rat Race

While top-tier colleges are dealing with surges in applications, lesser known ones have seen sharp declines.

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ImageApplications soared at Cornell University, which didn’t require standardized test scores in the pandemic.
Credit…Heather Ainsworth for The New York Times

The pandemic seems to have exposed and perhaps worsened a recent trend in college admissions: Selective universities have seen extraordinary interest from applicants this year, after waiving test scores. But smaller and less recognizable schools are extending deadlines and expanding outreach to attract students.

Students from less advantaged backgrounds are, predictably, being left behind.

The Common Application saw 10 percent more applications submitted by about 1 percent more students. But about 3 percent fewer students who would be the first in their families to go to college submitted applications this year. There was also a 2 percent drop in students who qualified for waived admissions fees — a proxy for family income.

“The inequities of access to education are in stark relief,” said Jenny Rickard, the chief executive of the Common App.

Selective and well-known schools like Haverfordthe University of California, Los Angeles and Penn State saw double-digit surges. Harvard set a record — a 42 percent increase — and the entire Ivy League had to extend its notification deadline by a week to give counselors time to read applications.

But many of the state schools and small private colleges that educate a vast majority of college students in the United States suffered double-digit drops. At Portland State in Oregon, freshman applications were down 12 percent and transfers down 28 percent. And applications fell by 14 percent at the State University of New York, the largest public college system in the country.
Many institutions outside the top tier have struggled for years. The pandemic has made it worse: American colleges and universities have endured losses of more than $120 billion and a few have even shut down permanently. For those that remain, landing fewer students — and losing critical tuition dollars — could mean further distress.

Many of those schools are also relying on a strong crop of applicants to help overcome falling undergraduate enrollment, down 4.4 percent in the fall semester. And many of those applicants transfer in from community colleges, which often provide low-income students a first step into higher education. But in the fall of 2020, community college enrollment fell by more than 20 percent.

“Institutions often have to make up the difference somehow, whether it’s by cutting services and programs and scaling back student supports and investments in student success and educational equity,” said Mamie Voight, the interim president at the Institute of Higher Education Policy, which researches and promotes college access.

For many low-income and first-generation students, those programs provide the tools, resources and support that they need to complete their degrees.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance on schools was supposed to provide a pathway for schools to reopen quickly and safely, helping to fulfill a pledge by President Biden.

But it seems increasingly likely that it will have limited effect.

Many districts in states like Florida, Georgia and Texas have already opened for full-time, in-person instruction and are unlikely to retreat from that even if the agency’s guidance suggests that they should. Other districts, including many on the West Coast, are so far down a path of extreme caution and risk-avoidance that the guidance is unlikely to change their course, either.

Experts say the guidance was so unclear on certain issues that people on both sides of the reopening debate can find support for their positions.

Helen Jenkins, an infectious disease expert at Boston University, cited the physical distancing between students as an example. The guidance says that in areas of low or moderate transmission — defined as 49 new cases or fewer per 100,000 people in a week — schools can be open for full in-person instruction at all grade levels. But it also recommends “physical distancing of 6 feet or more to the greatest extent possible.”

“I was left without knowing precisely what the distancing guidance was,” Jenkins said.

Even after the C.D.C. director, Rochelle Walensky, made clear that, at low or moderate community transmission levels, a school’s inability to keep students six feet apart should not prevent full reopening, some districts balked at the idea.

San Francisco, which is not planning to welcome back any students until transmission in the community falls to 49 new cases or fewer per 100,000 people per week, is still planning to require six feet of distancing, meaning that students in some schools will most likely be able to attend only part-time.

Asked why, a spokeswoman said the district, which has not reached an agreement with its teachers’ union on how many hours a week of in-person instruction will be offered, had to consider what would make employees “feel safe.”


  • The University of Michigan shut down a library that had venomous spiders inside. The school now says it was a mistake.

  • Rutgers University will install markers to acknowledge the school’s ties to slavery.

  • A good read from The Rice Thresher: During power outages from the winter storm that gripped Texas last week, students at Rice University lined up to receive vaccines before they spoiled, reported Rynd Morgan, a student journalist.

  • A good read from The Times: Over half a century ago, Calvin E. Tyler Jr. had to drop out of Morgan State University. This week, he pledged to give the historically Black college in Baltimore $20 million.

  • And a good listen: Kara Swisher interviewed Carmen Twillie Ambar, the president of Oberlin College, on Sway. They talked about college finances … and college financial inequity. It’s a great interview.

  • The Biden administration will require states to administer federally-mandated standardized tests this year, with some modifications. Schools will not be accountable for the results, and states can give shorter or more flexible exams. Pennsylvania, for one, wants to allow districts to delay exams until the fall. New York is considering not requiring seniors to pass Regents exams to graduate.

  • The school board in San Francisco has put its plan to rename schools on hold after facing criticism as well as a potential lawsuit. (Students have learned remotely since last March, and the district has not yet set a date for reopening.)

  • The entire school board in Oakley, Calif., resigned after the members mocked parents, suggesting they wanted teachers back in school so they could have “their babysitters back” and go back to smoking marijuana.

  • California will designate 10 percent of its vaccine doses each week to school employees, Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

  • A good read from Chalkbeat: Catholic schools in Philadelphia have old buildings and limited funds. But many have stayed open, five days a week, through the pandemic. How?

  • A good listen from The Times: Our colleague Apoorva Mandavilli spoke about kids and the coronavirus on The Daily. The United States needs pediatric vaccines to reach herd immunity, she said.


Janelle Harb had about eight hours of classroom experience before the pandemic struck. In February 2020, she started teaching A.P. Computer Science at Buffalo Seminary, an all-girls independent day and boarding school in Buffalo, N.Y. For two weeks, she spent 40 minutes in front of a classroom, feeling it out.

Then, the world changed. Now a full-time teacher, her classes are hybrid. She is trying to learn a classroom manner and develop her pedagogy, often on her own.

“I know that some of the things that I am doing are not normal, but I don’t really know what normal is supposed to be,” Harb, 24, said.

And without the bustling faculty lounge or the ease of a lunch table with colleagues, Harb struggles to bounce ideas around with older teachers who could give her advice.

“At lunchtime, 99 percent of the time, I am eating lunch alone in my office,” she said. “I’m definitely not lonely, but I am isolated.”

Still, students find ways to cope. Last week, she passed students in the senior lounge, eagerly planning for the prom.

“This is the new normal that myself and a lot of teachers are now used to,” she said. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just how it is.”