Nationally recognized, world-renowned Virginia Tech is more interested in knowing what their college applicants’ goals are than their test scores. So much so, they’re remaining test-optional until 2026, at the least, and they believe that strategy is paying off. Virginia Tech Undergraduate Admissions Director Juan Espinoza believes the process has created a stronger, more diverse application class.
However, their search for students’ non-cognitive attributes does not come without hard work – too much hard work, even. Virginia Tech received almost 50,000 applications for its most recent admissions cycle, and it’s starting to affect his team’s ability to make clearly defined, quantifiable decisions on who gets in – and who gets left out.
“With some of these institutions that continue to get more and more competitive, in some ways it seems like the application process is getting more random,” said Espinoza during a Times Higher Education (THE) webinar. “You’re just not going to find an admissions team that thinks they have the perfect system. We’re all trying our best to make it as fair as possible, but there’s also the recognition because of the volume that it’s nearly an impossible task.”
Rick Clark, executive director of Georgia Tech’s undergraduate admissions, has seen college applications soar to 53,000, which is 18,000 more than five years ago. He kicked off THE’s webinar “University admissions: a flawed process?” by answering the question right out the gate: “It’s absolutely unfair.” Colleges undoubtedly survive off a healthy stream of first-year applications, but Clark argues that every admissions team has a threshold. A longer, more strenuous application review season has created a challenge to retain talented admissions officers at big schools.
“Those who are receiving lots of applications, more demand than supply is available, are now in a mode of having to so closely make delineations between students and consider so many different factors to make these decisions, that there are months where that’s really all they’re doing,” said Clark. “They are so bogged down in reviewing these applications, and they end up denying a sizable number of students. Very few people went into this work to say ‘no.'”
Clark identified the Common Application as a big contributor to the surge in applications. According to Common App data, first-year applicants now submit an average of six applications through this portal alone, two more on average than eight years ago. Clark now sees a tool that was supposed to boost equitable access to colleges among all students creating an opposite desired effect: the surge in applications has created a strenuous, oftentimes unpredictable application process that students and parents have no real understanding of. “The college admission rate is only going down, furthering the anxiety families have,” Clark said. “We as humans want to predict what’s going to happen with our kids, but each year that’s becoming more and more challenging.”
Rethinking the application
Clark believes the application process can be re-tooled by introducing technological components. He alluded to modernized ways of capturing the student’s voice rather than relying on a cumbersome essay process.
“How can a student just do a quick 30-60 second video that’s not super produced, but shows off their voice: who they are, what they care about and what they want you to know beyond what they put on their application otherwise. I just think that’s what we should be looking at and focusing on to try to make it easy and inexpensive for students going forward.”
Espinoza, however, is wary of how we choose to move forward with technology. For example, he believes artificial intelligence, will “add more complexity to an already complex process,” but he is interested in its potential to boost enrollment equity.
The haves and have-nots
Clark sees how lopsided the distribution of college applications is becoming, creating the “haves and have-nots” of higher education. While the haves struggle to meet the demand of their student applications equitably, the have-nots face a worse ordeal: They are closing down. Finlandia University and Iowa Wesleyan University are some recent examples that are choosing to shut down by the end of the current academic year.
He believes changing marketing strategies is contributing to this lack of interest among students in smaller private schools.
“Coming out of the pandemic, traditional ways of sourcing students have been deeply compromised. Schools haven’t been opening back up to allow university representatives to come into some of the schools that need to be there because their brands aren’t as strong.”