The Numbers Game: Changing Trends in College Admissions

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Amelia Cacchione/Daily
Tuesday, February 14, 2017 - 7:03pm

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Located in a predominantly middle-class Detroit suburb within a 20-minute drive of Ann Arbor, Plymouth-Canton Community School’s graduating class submits on average 300 applications to the University of Michigan each year. About one-third are usually admitted and choose to matriculate, according to Renee Eley, a high-school guidance counselor in the district.

As an adviser to many students applying to the University over the years, Eley said there has been a noticeable trend toward higher competition in admissions.

“It slowly keeps getting tougher,” Eley said.

Eley said she has noticed an increasingly competitive admissions process turning away students whom she would describe as otherwise qualified, reflecting the increased selectivity of the application process.

“Last year I had a student who had a 3.9 (GPA), and she was accepted at NYU and some other highly competitive schools, but then she was deferred at Michigan, so she ended up attending Michigan State,” Eley said. “There’s no reason she shouldn’t have been at Michigan, and that’s where we get confused, because we can’t really get straight answers.”

In the 2009-2010 admissions cycle, the acceptance rate to the University of Michigan for all applicants hovered just under 50 percent. In the 2015-2016 cycle the acceptance rate was 29 percent. This shift has largely been credited to the implementation of the Common Application — an online college admission application that streamlines the application process to more than 600 colleges —  five years ago, expanding the applicant pool.

Last October, the University released the latest enrollment figures for the freshman class of 2016-2017. The data showed a significant increase in socioeconomic diversity and the number of high schools represented at the University, though admissions officers at the University are need-blind.

At the same time, the report showed some discouraging trends for Michigan residents looking to attend the University.

From 2012 to 2016, the number of in-state students in the freshman class decreased by four percent, while the number of incoming out-of-state freshmen increased by 25 percent. Simply put, as the University expands its class sizes each year, out-of-student applicants are the primary beneficiaries.

Over the course of the last two admissions cycles, the number of out-of-state students who matriculated has seen an upward trend, largely at the expense of Michigan residents.

Forty-eight-point-four percent of the 2016-2017 freshman class represents out-of-state students, as compared to 46.5 percent in 2015 — an increase of 1.9 percent. Over these two admissions cycles, the in-state student enrollment dropped by 254 students, leaving the percentage of in-state students of the entire student body at 51.6 percent.

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Amelia Cacchione/Daily

While Michigan residents, in general, have experienced greater competition in the admissions process, the University has implemented several programs to make itself more accessible to both in-state and out-of-state students from low- and middle-class families.

For in-state students the University has invested heavily in two programs, the HAIL scholarship and Wolverine Pathways, which seek to improve the socioeconomic diversity of incoming classes.

According to Kedra Ishop, the University vice provost for enrollment management, the HAIL scholarship encourages the enrollment of students of low socioeconomic backgrounds throughout the state of Michigan by providing them with additional financial aid.

In 2016, the HAIL scholarship’s pilot year, the University enrolled 262 students as part of the program.

According to an October interview with University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, HAIL also serves as a way of ensuring that traditionally underrepresented minority students who come from lower-income families in Michigan have increased access to the University without violating Proposal 2 — a court ruling that effectively eliminated affirmative action policies at state colleges in Michigan.

“The first year of our HAIL scholarship experiment was very successful,” Fitzgerald said. “We brought in 262 HAIL scholars from all around Michigan. Now, this effort primarily targets socioeconomic diversity because that’s what the state law allows us to do.”

Another program implemented by the University to make itself more accessible to students of low socioeconomic backgrounds is Wolverine Pathways, a mentorship program piloted in 2015, for middle and high schoolers in Ypsilanti and Southfield, Mich. — two cities with significant populations of low- and middle-income families — that provides students with free tuition upon their successful completion in the program.

And according to Ishop, the University has been largely successful on this front. She noted that the number of Michigan high schools that sent students to the University increased in the most recent admissions cycle.

The push to improve socioeconomic diversity at the University has not just been limited to in-state students. For low- and middle-income students from out of state in recent years, the University has become more financially accessible by the increase in freshmen participating in the federal Pell Grants program.

The number of students receiving Pell Grants — federal grants issued to low-income students — increased to 17 percent, up from 15.3 percent in 2015, and the number of first-generation students spiked by 5.7  percentage points.

According to Fitzgerald this increase in out-of-state enrollment is partially explained by University efforts to boost the geographic diversity of each freshman class. Fitzgerald also noted the University’s increase in financial aid packages to such students has allowed the institution to attract more out-of-state students that don’t come from upper-middle-class and wealthy families.

“We’ve grown a little bit in non-Michigan students … to diversify the student body,” Fitzgerald said in October. “We’re looking at students of all socioeconomic statuses around the country.”

The trend toward greater out-of-state student enrollment at the University has not been without pushback among Michiganders. In the most recent election cycle, Carl Meyers — a Dearborn financial adviser and Republican — ran for University regent on a platform that focused on increasing in-state enrollment.

“The University pushes the message that they are a world-class University and we have an obligation to take kids from around the country and the world — and that’s great,” Meyers said. “However, try and say that to a kid from the city of Detroit, Canton or Traverse City that gets the rejection letter that says, ‘We’re sorry, it was a competitive year and we wish you well on your academic endeavors.’ Their life is going to change. And because that out-of-state student took their spot, their life has changed.”

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Amelia Cacchione/Daily

For the 2010-2011 admissions cycle, the University became the first flagship public university outside of the East Coast to switch to the Common Application, joining the ranks of lofty names such as the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Virginia, Dartmouth College, Northwestern University and Harvard University.

In effect, the Common Application made applying to the University a quicker and more convenient process.

As a result of the switch, many out-of-state admissions critics, like Meyers, believe the University has become inundated by out-of-state applicants simply because it’s easier to apply.

“The Common App has facilitated students to ‘carpet bomb’ applications to different schools,” Meyers said. “When my son was applying to college, he had a friend who applied to 30 different schools. He was accepted to about 28 of them, and can only attend one. So what we’re seeing happen is that the Common Application clogs up the admissions system."

The switch intended to help the University compete against other highly ranked private and large public schools that also joined the Common Application. Ted Spencer, then University associate vice provost and executive director of undergraduate admissions told the Daily in 2009 that he expected an increase in the quantity, credentials and diversity of applicants as a result of the switch.

Mary Sue Coleman, who was University president at the time, championed the Common Application as a means to ease the application process without forgoing holistic review of applicants.

“For me it became a matter of why wouldn’t we want to make it easier for students to apply to Michigan?” Coleman told the Daily in 2009.

Indeed, many high-school students outside of Michigan based their decision to apply to the University on the new, convenient online form. In the 2010-2011 admissions cycle, 39,570 applied for admission to the 2011 freshman class, an increase by 25 percent over the past year, with most of the growth in applicants coming from out-of-state.

Julia Wiener, who was a high school senior from New York in 2011, told the Daily the Common Application likely played a role in increasing the out-of-state applicant pool. Wiener herself was accepted to the University.

“A lot of my friends applied to lots of different schools, and I think the Common App played a huge part in them applying (to the University of Michigan),” Wiener said.

In a 2011 interview, then-University provost Philip Hanlon said he expected the number of applicants to be larger, but also less invested in the attending the University. He added that deferrals for early action also increased in response to the larger applicant pool.

“(This year’s extra applicants) aren't, perhaps, as committed to (the University),” Hanlon said. “You always expect that when an application process gets harder, it's more committed people who apply.”

The applicant pool continued to grow each year following 2010, with 55,500 applications submitted for the class of 2020. This represents a 85 percent increase from pre-common app levels.

In the 2015-2016 application cycle, 10,959 applications were submitted by in-state students, who had an acceptance rate of 42.4 percent. 44,541 applications were submitted by students from other states or countries, and these were accepted at a rate of 24.5 percent.

With a more unpredictable applicant pool, admissions officials found it difficult to control yield rates — the percentage of those offered admission who ultimately matriculate to the University — and freshman class sizes regularly exceeded their guideline of approximately 6,000 students. In 2014, the University hired Kedra Ishop, a veteran admissions official from the University of Texas, to help curb over-enrollment.

The class of 2019 was cut to 6,071, but the following year’s freshman class increased to 6,689; the largest incoming class in University history. In summer of 2016, Fitzgerald told the Daily that the new growth in enrollment was a deliberate decision in response to the growing number of applications.

“The number of applications continue to go up … and the University wanted to legitimately look at things carefully and say, ‘could we accommodate more of these students showing this great interest in coming to Michigan?’ ” Fitzgerald said. “Could we accommodate them without stretching ourselves too thin or at great additional expense? And what the University has decided is there is room for some growth as long as we can manage it properly and know what to expect.”

The number of incoming freshmen increased by 618 students from 2015 to 2016, while the number of incoming out-of-state freshmen increased by 699 in the same time.

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Amelia Cacchione/Daily

Amid the backdrop of this out-of-state flock to the University over the course of the past decade, one thing has remained true: The cost of attending the University continues to increase.

According to University-released statistics, out-of-state tuition and fees for incoming freshman during the 1999-2000 academic year were $19,761 ($28,968 adjusted for inflation).  Today, an incoming freshman from out-of-state can expect to pay $45,410 in tuition and fees — not including housing and other academic expenses.

Over the same period of time, the cost of tuition and fees for in-state residents also increased.

During the 1999-2000 academic year, an incoming freshman from the state of Michigan could expect to pay $6,338 in tuition and fees ($9,291 adjusted for inflation).  In-state freshmen coming to the University last year were expected to spend $14,074  — an increase of about 51 percent over the past 15 years compared to the almost 57 percent increase for out-of-state freshmen.

This financial incentive to admit more out-of-state students is part of the reason Meyers believes the University has recruited students from other states.

“The reason I believe we are here goes back to actions by the Board of Regents, going back to the 1990s,” Meyers said in a recent interview with the Daily. “They began admitting more out-of-state students to solve their budget deficit — that was their safety valve. And their justification is that ‘we’re in a worldwide economy and we want to admit more students from other places,’ but the fact is they (the University) need more out-of-state students to balance their budget because they weren’t as vigilant as they should on the expense side.”

University officials like Fitzgerald, however, reject Meyers’ claim that the number of out-of-state enrollees was a matter of revenue, instead arguing that international and out-of-state students add sought diversity to the class profile.

Admissions to the University have been in flux in recent years because of several campus developments. Ishop said last November in an interview major administrative considerations — primarily the year-long renovations of dormitories, and past instances of over-enrollment — have spurred the University to reconsider their admissions strategy.

Now that all scheduled dorm renovations are complete, Ishop says the University can continue accepting students at the same rate as this year’s freshman class, which grew by 618 total students to 6,689 freshmen. As a result, the admissions department is looking to “stabilize” the process for enrolling the freshmen class — or ensure the class size is controllable. This includes achieving the right balance between in-state and out-of-state students.

“From 2014-2015, and from 2015-2016 there has been a modest increase in out-of-state enrollees …” Ishop said in an interview in November. “Now we are in the process of stabilizing the freshmen class size, we would like to get to a steady point between in-state and out-of-state enrollment.”

Regent Ron Weiser (R) disagreed with Meyer’s characterization of admissions trends as well. While acknowledging that in-state applicants should receive preference from the University, Weiser also stressed the importance of geographic diversity, insisting that any change in enrollment figures must be taken in context with trends in the applicant pool at large.

“It’s important we have diversity of where people are from as well as income,” Weiser said. “I’d have to have a lot more information to come to any conclusions … if you had out-of-state applications of qualified students double, and the in-states down … then those numbers aren’t bad.”