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The 4 Trends in 2021 College Admissions You Need to Know

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Posted by Ashley Robinson | Jun 1, 2021 6:00:00 PM

College Admissions



A lot has changed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and college admissions are no exception. If you feel uncertain about what to expect from college admissions this year, you’re not alone. 

This article will help clear up the confusion! We’ve brought together the latest college admissions news in one easy place to bring you up to speed on the most important changes to college admissions 2021. In this article, we’re going to cover two main things: 

  • The top four trends in college admissions 2021
  • The three main things you need to be prepared for in the college admissions process as the COVID-19 pandemic slows down

Now, let’s get started!




4 Trends in College Admissions 2021

The college admissions process changes a little bit every year. In 2021, though, the changes have been a little more unpredictable and drastic than usual. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some existing trends have been accelerated and altered for college admissions 2021-2022

So here’s what was happening with college admissions news pre-2021 and pre-COVID. Many colleges had nearly a decade of accelerated growth, with student enrollment increasing faster than schools could accommodate. For instance, Texas A&M, which currently has the largest student enrollment jumped from a student body of just over 49,000 in 2010 to over 71,000 in 2020. The second largest university, University of Central Florida, had around 53,000 students in 2010, which climbed to almost 71,948 in 2020

Those numbers are pretty drastic--and many other schools saw a decent uptick in enrollment numbers, too. But once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the predicted patterns of enrollment growth were suddenly unpredictable.

COVID-19 affected universities in a variety of unforeseen ways—and each school was impacted a little differently. Having said that, there are some overall trends that can help you see the big picture of college admissions 2021. We’ll break the college admissions news down into four major trends so it’s easier to understand next.


Trend 1: More People Are Applying to Selective Schools...And Acceptance Rates Are Dropping

Most, if not all, of the larger and more selective universities have reported dramatic increases in applications. However, this trend is not true across the board, and is an incomplete picture of the state of college admissions 2021. 

Because many schools--including some of the top U.S. universities--have gone test optional during the pandemic, more students are taking a risk and submitting applications (sans test scores) to top-tier schools to see if they can get in. That means that the number of applications that schools like Stanford and Harvard have received is much higher than in previous years.  

But that doesn’t mean there were more individual students applying for college during the 2020-2021 cycle. The Common Application, a popular app that allows students to apply to multiple universities with a single application, saw an 11% overall increase in the number of college applications submitted--but only a 2% increase in individual users

This is a hint at the overall college admissions trend in 2021: there’s a certain YOLO aspect to 2021 college application patterns. According to Forbes Advisor:

“In particular, through March 1, 20% more first-generation college students applied to big, selective schools—those with the lowest average acceptance rates—as did 24% more Black, Latinx, American Indian or Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander students compared to last year. International applicants to U.S. colleges in general also increased by 10%.”

Why this is happening is hard to pinpoint, but it’s likely that test-optional application policies made it more feasible for a wider range of applicants to apply to more exclusive schools. But it could also have to do with colleges’ increased commitment to recruiting a diverse student body...or the fact that limited jobs have encouraged more students to go to college before entering the workforce.

But a major consequence of the increase in applications is that the admissions rates at selective colleges decreased during the 2021-2022 application cycle. 

According to Wall Street Journal, Harvard University accepted only 3.4%, a precipitous drop from their previous lowest acceptance rate of 4.6%. In 2019-2020, Harvard accepted 6.5% of applicants. Columbia University also had a similar decline in acceptances. The 2020-2021 acceptance rate at Columbia was 3.7%, down from 6.1% last year. 

If elite schools maintain their test optional policies in 2021-2022--and that looks like a strong possibility--then it’s likely that this trend of more applications but lower acceptance rates will continue during this application cycle.


Trend 2: Fewer Students Are Applying to Less Prestigious Schools

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has had the opposite effect on public universities and smaller private colleges. Fewer students applied to these types of schools during the 2020-2021 school year. 

For instance, according to a report published by the New York Times, domestic applications at Cal Poly Pomona were down 40 percent in 2020-2021 versus the year before. Transfer applications dropped even more, plunging 52 percent from the previous year. 

And Cal Poly Pomona isn’t the only school in this situation. According to the New York Times, many other schools have seen double-digit drops in their application rates in 2020-2021, including Portland State and Loyola University. And chances are this trend will continue as long as COVID-19 continues to impact colleges’ admissions policies. 

There’s one exception to this trend, and that’s graduate school. It turns out that graduate admissions are up, even at less prestigious schools:

“Graduate enrollment, on the other hand, has increased this term by 4.3 percent year over year across all institution types. At public four-year institutions, graduate enrollment increased by 6.2 percent, and it increased by 1.5 percent at private nonprofit four-year institutions. For-profit colleges have seen a 4 percent bump in graduate enrollment so far this spring.”

Again, the reasons behind this are not entirely clear, but it’s likely that people who may have lost their jobs in the pandemic are taking advantage of the opportunity to further their education and/or increase their credentials to qualify for other positions in their field. And depending on the economic situation in 2021-2022, we may see increased graduate application rates this year, too. 

But if you’re applying as a freshman, the thing to remember about undergraduate admission rates 2021 is that acceptances haven’t increased, unfortunately, and more students are applying to top schools. This means that having a stellar application packet is key!



Students transferring between schools decreased in 2020-2021, but there's a good chance those numbers will spring back in 2021-2022 as travel restrictions lift. 


Trend 3: Student Mobility Is Decreasing

Another aspect of college admissions 2021 is a decrease in student mobility, meaning students’ tendencies to move from school to school. Student mobility affects a school’s transfer student admissions rate, and transfer enrollment overall dropped a whopping 7.9% across all U.S. universities in 2021-2022.  

Some of this is likely due to a general lack of travel overall due to COVID-19. According to a report by National Student Clearinghouse Research Center:

"First, a ripple effect of last fall’s enrollment decline has led to far fewer continuing students enrolling this spring compared to a year ago. The 10.2 percent transfer enrollment decline among continuing students can be explained partly by having fewer students enrolled last fall to begin with. Among students who were enrolled in the fall, however, there was also a higher fall-to-spring attrition rate, as well as a decline in transfer activity among those who did continue enrollment into this spring. All these effects are attributable to the pandemic."

Some of the fall-off in transfer rates in 2020-2021 may have been due to lockdowns and uncertainty due to COVID-19. As lockdowns and travel restrictions ease, there’s a decent chance that transfer admission rates will return to pre-COVID levels in 2021-2022. 


Trend 4: There Will Be Fewer Domestic Applicants...But an Increase in Diversity

An interesting statistic is that US birth rates have been in steady decline from 2000-2018. Entering college freshmen in 2021 would be those born around the recession of the early 2000s, the very beginning of this decline. This means over the next several years, there will be fewer and fewer domestic college applicants. 

Another statistic is that white students accounted for 51% of all graduating seniors by 2019, and are expected to account for 46% by 2025. This means that colleges are working to recruit more heavily from under-served communities--including low income, first-generation college students, and communities of color. Many colleges have already given diversity, equity, inclusion, and retention programs some emphasis, and that trend will likely continue. 

It’s hard to predict how this will change the on-campus culture for future institutions, but you can expect that it will. Currently, students from low-income high schools are 2.3 times less likely to apply to college than students from higher-income high schools. Given the birth rate and graduation trends, it’s likely that campuses will become more diverse and inclusive in 2021 and beyond. 



Keep your  eye out for these three things if you're applying to college this year. 


3 Things to Look Out for in College Admissions 2021-2022

Without a crystal ball, it’s hard to predict what the long-term outcome of all these college admissions trends will be. Nevertheless, recent college admissions news makes some solid projections that can help you roll with the punches as the 2021-2022 admissions cycle unfolds. 

Below, we’ll cover three possible scenarios for college admissions 2021 that you need to be prepared for. 


#1: It Might Be Easier to Transfer

It’s likely that the current decrease in transfers will reverse once COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted. People’s lives have changed in drastic ways over the past year, and many students might need to transition to a new school this year. 

For instance, some current college students may need to live closer to home because of challenges presented by the pandemic. Others may feel that they never got the chance to become a part of the community at their current school and hope to feel more at home at a different school. 

Because of situations like these, it’s possible that there will be an increase in transfer applications this year--and schools with lower enrollment numbers may be eager to welcome new transfer students with open arms. 


#2: In-Person Classes Will Likely Return

As the COVID-19 pandemic slows down, many schools are considering how best to return to in-person classes, and most universities have stated that it’s their goal to reopen classrooms by Fall 2021. While schools may still offer the same types of online classes as before the COVID-19 pandemic, most universities are trying to move back to a mostly in-person education model. 

Additionally, a widespread return to in-person learning may inspire more students to apply to colleges in the 2021-2022 admissions cycle. This may mean there’s an increase in the number of students applying for college, too. 


#3: Testing Policies May Change

Another trend that may or may not continue in college admissions 2021 is test-optional admissions policies. Some schools, such as NYU and George Mason, have gone test-optional for the long haul and likely won’t revert back to requiring SAT/ACT scores for admission. But many schools chose to go temporarily test optional in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now, it isn’t totally clear whether those schools will keep the SAT/ACT optional when the pandemic ends. 

As the 2021-2022 admissions cycle progresses, it’s important to stay up-to-date on the testing policies at your schools of choice. Check in with your admissions counselors and read all of the emails that schools send you to for info on any changes to testing policies. You should also take a look at schools’ admissions websites to check for announcements about admissions policy changes, including test score requirements. We’re also updating our big list of test optional schools regularly, so it’s a good idea to check it out, too. 

Even if your top schools remain test-optional, remember that test scores are often still required for many funding opportunities. Students who do not submit test scores may miss out on scholarships and other funds that will make college more accessible to them. It’s also true that students who do not submit test scores to test-optional admissions universities are accepted at lower rates than those who do submit. 




What's Next?

Even if the 2021 college application process is a little different, you’ll still have to submit an application if you’re trying to get into a university. This complete guide to college applications is a good resource for you as you start the admissions process! 

As you start thinking about where you want to go to school, you’ll need to put together a college list. That’s because (usually) applying to college isn’t free: you’ll have to pay a fee to each school you apply to, so it’s important to make each application count! 

And of course, a college application only works if you get it in on time. Here’s a timeline to the application process, including big milestones you need to be aware of. 


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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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