College Admissions in 2024: "A Year Like No Other"


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Aired April 8, 2024

Hosts Jon and Mushtaq are joined by ACE President Ted Mitchell to examine the complexities of college admissions in 2024. They discuss the potentially devastating impacts of the problems with the redesigned FAFSA form, reflect on the repercussions of the 2023 Supreme Court ruling on race in admissions, and examine the issues surrounding legacy admissions and the resurgence of standardized testing requirements.

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

Students, Parents and Colleges Face Growing Anxiety Over Financial Aid Processing Backlog
NBC News | April 1, 2024

As Colleges Receive FAFSA Records, Some Ask: ‘How Do We Trust This Data?’
The Washington Post (sub. req.) | March 31, 2024

NCAN's FAFSA Tracker
National College Attainment Network

Extending Enrollment and Financial Aid Deadlines
American Council on Education

Can You Create a Diverse College Class Without Affirmative Action?
The New York Times (sub. req.)  | March 9, 2024

OPINION: Banning Legacy Admissions Will Deliver Another Blow to the Children of Black Alumni
The Hechinger Report | March 30, 2024

Why Elite Colleges Are Bringing the SAT Back
Vox | Feb. 27, 2024


 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith: Hello, and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education policy podcast from the American Council on Education. I'm your host, Jon Fansmith, and I'm joined by the man, the myth, the legend himself, Mushtaq Gunja. How are you, Mushtaq?

Mushtaq Gunja: I'm good, Jon. How are you?

Jon Fansmith: I'm doing great. Maybe more importantly even than you, hard to believe, even more importantly than you, we are also joined here at the top of the episode by ACE's President Ted Mitchell. Ted, how are you doing today,

Ted Mitchell: Jon, I'm doing well. Mushtaq, good to see you. Wondering how you're feeling about spring training.

Mushtaq Gunja: I'm feeling great about the beginning of this baseball season because the Dodgers are just coming off a sweep of Ted Mitchell's beloved San Francisco Giants, and by beloved, I mean he doesn't follow them that closely but he did grow up in San Francisco, and I know that at least that is partially your team, Ted. How are you feeling about the beginning of the baseball season?

Ted Mitchell: Well, as you can tell, I want it to still be spring training and not have it be a week into the season. I'm in despair already, but for Giants fans, that's something that generally lasts for quite some time.

Mushtaq Gunja: I was saying to Jon earlier ... I'm sorry, Jon. I was saying to you earlier that we in the Gunja household have been spending a little bit more time watching college hoops. My daughter has been playing basketball, and so we've been watching a lot of the women's tournament, which has been amazing, and I saw that the Iowa LSU Elite Eight game was the highest rated college basketball game I think of the last few years, men's or women's. We've got a little party at our house on Friday night to watch the final four, so if either of you, if anybody wants to, all of our listeners, everybody who's available to come over to the Gunja household to watch a little basketball…

Ted Mitchell: Well, it would be great to be there and I took a similar joy in hearing that the price of a ticket for the Women's Final Four is higher than the price of the Men's Final four. Let's talk about parity and glad to see it.

Jon Fansmith: We will be talking actually a little bit more in depth with you, Ted, about admissions, but before we get into that subject, we are just a couple weeks after coming off the Presidents and Chancellor Summit that ACE hosted here in Washington, D.C., was a gathering of approximately 130 institutional leaders from across the country, along with a number of ... I'll just say from my experience, I was lucky enough to be there, really inspiring and provocative thought-provoking speakers and guests who were there. Ted, you obviously were the ringmaster of this particular circus. Curious to see how you felt it went, the highlights for you, things you might want to share with the listeners.

Ted Mitchell: Thanks, Jon. It was a great couple of days. As you mentioned, we had about 130 institutional leaders there, and I think one of the things that they enjoyed most was the ability to be together and to be together in actually a non-circus setting where they had a chance to really talk with each other and hear from speakers General Mark Milley, Sal Khan, Governor Wes Moore, and all of them I think really called on all of us to step up in terms of providing value to our students and to America. Those messages fell on welcome ears, so I think everybody left inspired, recommitted to the work and supported by each other. Can't beat that.

Jon Fansmith: No, and recommitted to the work may be particularly important at this moment in time because as I mentioned, we really wanted you on, Ted, to talk about admissions in part because we are in an admissions season like no other, and one that if you're in higher ed and certainly if you're listening to this podcast, you care about higher ed and higher ed policy, that is particularly troubling for campuses, has been especially problematic with the rollout of the Better FAFSA, the new FAFSA implementation. Lots of other things I think we can talk about admissions, but that is front and center the thing on most people's minds. Ted, I have been stealing your line left, right, and center when I speak to groups about this, that this has been a rolling catastrophe. Do you want to just talk a little bit about it from your perspective, what you've seen from your perch here in Washington, D.C. working with the Department of Education, hearing from institutional leaders?

Ted Mitchell: Sure, Jon. It is a rolling catastrophe, and as we know, it rolls right over a population of students we care deeply about, first generation, low-income students, many of whom are students of color who are trying to reach out for that American dream in terms of higher education and what they're finding is impediments at every turn. First it was FAFSA wasn't ready, then the system was clogged and people couldn't get their information in in the right way. Then there were places where some categories of student and families, mixed-status students and families in particular, weren't able to fill out the form. Now the pipeline is clogged once again as the department begins to process applications by the hundreds of thousands and are sending them to institutions.

But what usually is a process that starts in January and ends really in February or very early March is now going to continue through April and what that means is that they're going to be at least three big impacts. One is that students who are in the pipeline, students who have filled out FAFSA, who seek to enter college are going to know very, very late in the decision-making window how much financial aid they'll actually get. A student's aid package typically consists of federal aid, state aid, institutional aid, and some outside scholarship money. Well, that mosaic can't fit together in any meaningful way without that first basic element. What's the eligibility of the student for a Pell grant? Eligibility for student loans? Where do student loans fit in? We've really worked hard as a field for the last 10 years to make sure that students had information on time, that they were able to compare apples to apples in terms of financial aid offers, and then make a reasoned decision about where to go to college. This year that process is going to be dammed up and students and their families are put in a really bad spot.

The second group is students who are already enrolled. We often forget that everybody who is involved in the Pell system has to re-enroll every year and so those students are facing all the technical hurdles that we've been talking about. The third, and this is the one that we've not talked a lot about, but I want to put a point on it in our discussion today, is that the records indicate that only a third fewer students have completed FAFSAs as of this point as last year, in comparison to the last year at this time. A third. That means hundreds of thousands of students have decided that they're going to sit on the sidelines, and those are students who aren't likely to recommit to higher education. They are likely to be this year's version of the COVID class that just decided to take a pass on higher education. It's terrible for them, it's terrible for their communities, and it's terrible for the nation.

Jon Fansmith: Ted, you mentioned the enrollment drops we saw during the pandemic. I'm curious, do you think we are looking at comparable drops in terms of percentages, in terms of what students we're looking at?

Ted Mitchell: First, I'm worried that this drop will be greater than the pandemic drop, but certainly the same groups of potential students are those who are sitting on the sidelines, low-income students, first generation college students, and many students of color who once again are feeling that this system is stacked against them and that they really don't belong in the higher education system. The irony is that the changes that the department undertook were all aimed in exactly the opposite direction. The department aimed to make the FAFSA simpler, they aimed to widen the opportunities for Pell grants for students. In fact, about 600,000 more students would've been eligible for Pell and the administration has continued to work to up the top limit of the Pell grant. So making it easier, broadening access, making it more valuable, those were the goals and they were aimed directly at the low-income first generation students of color who now are having the opposite reaction and staying away.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, I mean, that is absolutely the biggest fear here, and one of the things I wanted to follow up with you a little bit on, you're talking about the process, and I think in particular some of the frustration institutions are having because the information from the department of the ISIRs, those individual student records, the determinations of aid eligibility, that's the first step in a whole series of dominoes for determining state aid and institutional aid and scholarship aid. In some ways, I think institutions are doing everything they can to be technologically ready for this information, but in some cases there's just not much more they can do. Or am I getting that right? Is there other things institutions can be thinking about or doing in this period while they're waiting for the department to really get everything lined up?

Ted Mitchell: This is where this really is a rolling catastrophe because even on the technical side, the institutions that are having some trouble absorbing the ISIRs, the information from the federal government, are low-resourced institutions. Institutions we know disproportionately serve low-income students, and so they've got a hand tied behind their back, but they're doing, as you say, the very best that they can and financial aid officers around the country are working 20/24-hour days to try to make all of this work. But in addition to that, we've been working hard ... Nick Anderson on our team has been leading that charge. We've been working hard with institutions to encourage them to push back their deposit deadlines.

Typically, institutions think of May 1 as national signing day, and there are often celebrations about national signing day and students accepting offers. Well, May 1 is coming right around the corner, and if students aren't getting their complete aid offers in a way that they can compare them until the last week of April, that gives students no time to really compare these offers, make decisions that are going to affect them for the lifetime. We're encouraging institutions to move those deadlines to the middle of May, June 1, even beyond that, to give students a chance to really weigh this important decision. We have a database on our website of institutions that have made those decisions. We encourage all of your listeners to take a look at that, and we certainly encourage listeners who are in a position to help institutions do the right thing to move those decision dates out.

Mushtaq Gunja: It sounds like that's probably the most important thing that institutions can do to help here, move their deadlines back, because to the extent that this is about students having to make decisions in a particular enrollment window, the longer that window is so that students actually have the aid offers and can make their decisions, the better. Of course, I know institutions are doing everything they can be ready to receive the financial aid information from the department. Any advice, anything that the department can do or others in the field that are thinking about this can do to make our institutions and thus our students' lives sort of easier in this regard? Jon, have you been thinking about what the department might be able to do here?

Ted Mitchell: I think the department has, they're working under ... well, working on an incredible deadline and timeline, but institutions do feel that the communications have been less than perfect, and I think that institutions have been given one target date and then that target date evaporates and given another target date. That hasn't been helpful to this process, so I think even though it's late in the game, clear, direct, honest, transactional information between the department and the institutions is going to do a lot.

I think perhaps the most important thing the department can do is to ensure that next year we won't be looking at this problem and buttoning things up now so that we can have an admissions cycle that's closer to the one that we recognize, that begins in October and that has a high period of concentrated attention students in institutions early in the early winter, and then provides transparent, comprehensive data to students in a timely way and in the early springtime.

Jon Fansmith: Also I think Ted really covered this about as well as you could. The one other thing I might add, and it might be a little bit inside baseball, but during the pandemic, there were a lot of flexibilities that were allowed under the existing regulations that helped institutions pivot to serve students in different ways as courses went online and then back offline and in person. Certainly I know a lot of people have been asking for some very specific technical fixes in some ways or some flexibilities there that the department could and should allow financial aid offices and institutions to help smooth over some of the bumps that honestly have been created by the department in this process.

Ted Mitchell: Jon, I think to that point, one of the issues that has been of great concern on campus is the upcoming regulations on gainful employment and financial reporting. It turns out that many of the very same people who are busy making these academic aid award letters possible are the people who would be responsible for that. So kudos to the department for extending the deadline on that reporting from July to October. That's the kind of thing that, Jon, I think you're talking about that will matter on campuses.

Mushtaq Gunja: Well, I mean the FAFSA mess is just one of the reasons that this is sort of an unprecedented and a really different admissions cycle. Ted, it's been about a year since the Supreme Court ruled to restrict the use of race in our admissions processes. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about what you're hearing from campuses who've been impacted by the court's ruling.

Ted Mitchell: This has been a real one-two punch for the admissions process and the admissions team on campuses. Let's go back before pre-FAFSA and I think that coming out of the Supreme Court's decision, there was a recommitment to the kinds of things that the court explicitly determined would be useful to institutions in creating a diverse class, better and more complete outreach to high schools, creating bridge programs between high school and college, doing targeted recruitment to apply to groups of students. I think all of those things institutions were eager to grasp onto and to double down on.

What's happened now, though, is that the FAFSA experience has impacted many of the same students who had been the targets of those outreach programs, for example. What started out as a pretty interesting natural experiment, what can we do, all other things being equal to advance diversity in our enrollment without looking specifically at race? What can we do? That's a pretty interesting experiment, but it depends on that first part of the phrase all of their things being equal, and all other things certainly aren't equal. The experiment will have very mixed results. We really won't be able to tell much this year because of the complication that the FAFSA catastrophe adds to it. This is now just a ... it's a boiling stew, to change metaphors. It's a boiling stew, and we'll really just have to see what the outcome is when we can turn the heat down and get students in seats.

Jon Fansmith: We're going from a rolling catastrophe to a boiling stew. We are not short on dramatic metaphors today.

Ted Mitchell: Perhaps it's a rolling boil. How about that?

Jon Fansmith: I was just going to say it's good to have man quite as articulate as you on that elevates Mushtaq and my usual discourse. But when the decision came down, I think for many in the higher education community it was a very disheartening decision and you put out a statement that said that even with taking away this powerful tool for promoting equity, institutions weren't going to stop providing equity and educational opportunities for their students. Given the court's decision, it obviously limits some of the options, how are ways that institutions can do this while staying within the dictates of the current law of the land?

Ted Mitchell: That's right, and I do think that we all hitched up our pants and said, "All right, we have a new design principle. We can't use race explicitly in admissions, but what can we do?" A lot of it turns to a better collaboration between K-12 and higher education, better attention to recruiting students from neighborhoods, communities that typically don't send a lot of students to college. Here I'm not just talking about schools with high ethnic minority representation, I'm talking about small rural high schools. The ability of a rural high school student to attend a college is almost as limited as those from impacted low-resourced urban schools. Thinking more deliberately about creating a pipeline that is wide and broad and supportive of students is certainly one. Two, is that there is a wonderful and growing industry that is helping to create a bridge between high school and college to provide not just the academic enrichment, but to begin to build up the social capital and communities where that capital doesn't exist naturally.

Here I'm thinking mostly about first generation students, students for whom English isn't the first language at home, for whom the college admission process and college going process is a tough one. Those organizations, nonprofits, College Track comes to mind as a great example, can do even more to support the development of the kind of cultural capital that young people and their families will need to get ready for college. Then finally, I think one of the great unsung victories of the last five years has been the growth of dual admission programs and dual admission programs have provided some of these very same students with experience in college, mostly community college, have provided them an experience that sort of begins to erode that notion that they don't in college because they have proven by being there and doing well that the college is for them.

I think that there are plenty of tools for us to use. The evidence suggests that they're never going to be enough to be able to get us to back to a place where explicit consideration of race had us, but these are the right things to do for all kinds of reasons. The benefit will be to K-12 schools to students and families and to the colleges who benefit from a diverse class of students.

Jon Fansmith: I think that's really very helpful advice and a thoughtful way to think about the ways institutions can approach this. Maybe on the flip side of that, one other aspect of the admissions process that started receiving a great amount of attention following the Supreme Court's decision was around preferences and admissions, particularly around legacy preferences, but also preferences for the children of faculty and staff or preferences for athletics. Legacy in particular received the bulk of the attention and we've seen ... I think at this point in time, there's five states that have introduced legislation that would ban legacy preferences, at least at public institutions. Some states have already passed legislation in that regard. Some schools have announced publicly they were moving away from legacy. I guess I'd probably ask you why is legacy so much in the spotlight, and then are people understanding this appropriately? How do institutions actually use legacy as part of their admissions process?

Ted Mitchell: It's a complex question and I think so much in higher education the issue of legacy admissions begins and ends with a focus on the distribution of a very few admissions seats in a very few hyper competitive super elite institutions. With that limited gaze, it looks like every legacy admit is a spot that doesn't go to someone who may or may not have more, if there were such a thing, merit. Let's move our scope back a little bit. That's important. Interestingly, the question about legacy admissions at, say, Stanford or Harvard or Yale, that that's being asked just to the moment where the number of legacy African-American, Latino women has grown. So I think that there's some legitimate criticism of the concern over legacy admissions from those communities who say, "Wait, wait, wait. Just as we get to the goal line, you're going to move it."

For me, that's a symbol of the complexity of this issue. Legacy for whom? I think we automatically think of legacy as a preference for privilege and after 20 years of working hard on diversity, I think legacy is no longer simply associated with privilege. It's associated with past attendance at the institution. Now let's move that down a couple layers or out a couple of layers. Let's take at the other end of the spectrum. For small, rural, perhaps religiously affiliated institutions, legacy isn't so much about providing a leg up against a widely qualified applicant pool. It's about maintaining connections, intergenerational connections that may have a faith-based aspect to it, certainly have a community-based aspect to it, and so creating a legacy admissions program for those colleges is a very different matter.

Then I guess finally I would say that the spotlight on Legacy has spotlighted a lot of preference programs and I think that each of them seeks to fulfill a different niche in the overall mix of putting a class together, whether that's musicians or students in the arts or athletes. There are highlights on many, many applications that have to do with many characteristics of an applicant that have nothing to do with legacy or even to do with privilege, but have to do with merit and talent and special talents that they bring to the institution. Legacy is never a guarantee of admissions for institutions that don't have legacy admissions. It doesn't mean that legacies will never get in. I'm on the board of Occidental College. Occidental has eliminated legacy admissions, and I'm happy to say that that has not had an impact on either fundraising or the affection of the alumni for the college. I think that some of this is overwrought on both ends.

Mushtaq Gunja: Well, it does seem to me that this is ... whether an institution decides to keep legacy admissions or doesn't and change even at the margins the amount of weight that legacy is given, this feels like a good time to examine all of those questions because as we think through how we're going to ensure that our institutions keep a diverse class, thinking about the ways in which legacy might interact with that seems incredibly important. I'm gratified to hear that the elimination of legacy admissions at Occidental hasn't affected the enthusiasm of the alumni base, et cetera, et cetera, which I think I know are things that are important to institutions. I also think it's so important for us to keep in mind, this is the place you started Ted, that most institutions in this country are open access, are open to all and we don't have these sorts of issues that affect the vast majority of where our students go to school.

Ted Mitchell: Mushtaq, I think you've hit it and I think that if we approach a lot of these issues from a scarcity mindset, there are only so many spots, an institution has a 3 percent acceptance rate, et cetera, et cetera, we really miss the point of American higher education, which is both its diversity and its scope. The vast majority of students don't attend those 3 percent admissions institutions. There's no aspiration for that to be different. But we really miss the ball if we only think about scarcity, when in fact abundance, an abundance of high quality opportunities, is what makes American higher education so rich. We should probably do some things about all of these special categories, but we also need to think about how we can improve the quality of experience for open access institutions, for institutions who accept 70 percent of the people who apply, for institutions whose draw is very regional and who explicitly serve the needs of a certain portion of a state or even a city. So opening the aperture, adopting an abundance mindset rather than a scarcity mindset, I think this will enable us to have better conversations.

Mushtaq Gunja: Hear, hear. Can I ask you about one other sort of aspect of admissions, or at least the admissions season, which is how institutions are sort of thinking about standardized tests? In the pandemic season, especially when it became sort of difficult for institutions to properly evaluate standardized tests and high schools to administer them, many institutions went from requiring the SAT or the ACT to moving to something that was more test optional. Recently I think we've observed that at least a few institutions have gone back to more of a test-mandatory approach. I wondered if you had been following this and if you had thoughts on where the field was headed.

Ted Mitchell: It's very interesting from a number of points of view, not the least of which is how well do we in the academy make decisions based on research and data? I think that the revival of standardized testing has been an important step for us because in my reading of the research, the standardized tests, despite many shortcomings that test-givers, test-makers can genuinely try to improve, the tests do create a level playing field. Institutions, as they've done the research on test optional and other changes, have found that in fact it's harder to identify the great student from a bad high school without the ability to do this kind of assessment. Dartmouth, I know, has led the way in moving back to standardized testing. I think we will see more institutions doing that.

While it's an important piece of information, I think as we come back to standardized testing with the evidence that it does improve the chances of low-income first generation and minority students, students of color, I think that we will end up regarding it as less dispositive than it might've been at one point and more a piece and a colorful piece of the mosaic of a holistic view of a student, of an applicant.

Jon Fansmith: Ted, we really do appreciate you taking the time. I think even just on that one issue, you can see the very complex ... I like that phrase, complex mosaic of all the pieces that go into this, and certainly our discussion today is emphasized that, the many facets of the diversity of higher education and any aspects that impact even one area like admissions. So thank you so much for taking the time to join us and put that in some context and explain that to our listeners. Always great to have you on.

Ted Mitchell: Well, Jon and Mushtaq, thank you for having me on. This has been a lot of fun. Help me crystallize my thoughts and look forward to continuing our conversation.

Jon Fansmith: Great. And thank you all to our listeners, we will look forward to talking with you on our next episode.

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About the Podcast

​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major public policy issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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