College Applicant Pool May Shrink

In as little as two years, expect a lot fewer tears in the college admissions process—unless, that is, you’re applying to Harvard or one of its peers.

The number of graduating high-school seniors is set to decline after peaking at 2.9 million next academic year, according to a report published by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and cited in The New York Times.

A lower number of seniors is expected to turn into a smaller college applicant pool, which—at least at some schools—should make admissions less competitive.

As schools across the country send out decision letters to more than two million high school seniors this spring, the prospect of a less-frenzied college admissions process would be much appreciated, said Jim Conroy, who leads college counseling at New Trier High School, in the north suburbs of Chicago.

“I’m hoping that everything will fall back—the safety schools will be the safety schools [again],” he said.

The changes are rooted in nationwide demographic trends. For one, families are having fewer children, according to Graduate School of Education Professor Thomas W. Payzant.

“If you’re thinking about the big picture nationwide, students in the pipeline—in elementary and middle schools—are generating smaller numbers than have been coming up and through high school,” said Payzant, who led the Boston Public Schools from 1995 to 2006. “There’s no dramatic shift in the dropout rate or graduation rate of students. It’s overall demographics.”

But Payzant said the shrinking applicant pool won’t likely affect the country’s most prestigious schools.

“[Less selectivity] will be in a number of places where there has been a lot of ratcheting up of capacity to take more students,” Payzant said. “But whether or not those seats can be filled with a student body that can meet the standard may be an issue.”

Colin Riley a spokesman for Boston University, anticipates no significant decrease in either selectivity or the quality of future classes because of a decreased applicant pool. He sees the circumstances as more complex than the numbers show.

“What’s really important is not [that] the total pool declines, but what is the number of those applying to colleges,” Riley said. “It’s a little different than A + B = C. It’s obvious the number of seniors is going to decline. That doesn’t necessarily translate into a less selective process or a weaker class. There could be more college applicants, but they could apply to more colleges.”

While Conroy and Pyzant think that students will start applying to fewer schools because their chances of being admitted will have increased, this won’t necessarily be the case for those applying to top-tier schools.

“The Harvards, the Stanfords—they’re still going to be the ones people want to go to and envision as the end-all-to-be-all,” Conroy said. “Many students think that if you go to a Holy Grail school, you pave your way to a fabulous life. Sometimes that happens, sometimes it doesn’t.”

As the number of students graduating from high school starts to decline, admissions offices—including at Harvard—have said they will step up outreach to groups of students who have traditionally applied to college in lower numbers, such as low-income students and racial minorities.

Most recently, a slew of elite universities—led by Harvard and followed by Yale, Stanford, and a host of others—significantly expanded financial aid offerings, potentially making them even more attractive to applicants who had been previously dissuaded by the sticker shock of high tuition.