Common App sounds alarm about dip in first-gen, low-income applicants

The Common Application, a nonprofit that runs an online platform used by millions of students to apply to college, recently said the number of unique applicants submitting the Common App increased by just one percent compared with last year, while the number of first-generation applicants and those requesting fee waivers declined by three and two percent, respectively. The data—released after a number of institutions’ January 1 and January 15 application deadlines passed—offer clear evidence “that the pandemic is continuing to have equity implications for higher education,” The Chronicle of Higher Education writes.

Overall, the Common App has seen a 10 percent year-over-year increase in application submissions; however, those gains were concentrated at larger schools and more selective institutions, many of which were test-optional for the first time this application cycle. Institutions that admit less than half of their applicants saw a 17 percent increase in applications compared with last year; less selective schools saw just a four percent bump. 

‘Very concerned’ about dip in first-gen, low-income applicants  

In a letter sent to Common App members and obtained by Inside Higher Ed, Common App President and CEO Jenny Rickard said that the organization “continue[s] to be very concerned about the decline among fee waiver and first-generation applicants. Persistent trends of decline among these key subgroups across the 2020-21 cycle signal a need for additional support in the months leading up to enrollment in fall 2021.”

Related: First-year enrollment down 16% at US colleges and universities >

Prospective college students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, have faced difficult decisions during the coronavirus pandemic. Anthony P. Carnevale and Megan L. Fasules of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce point out that in past recessions, students would delay entering the job market by staying in school. But the pandemic is unique in that it has prevented students from even starting college at all—“reactions [that] could have major consequences for low-income students, who are more likely to delay or cancel their plans and to fall behind in their college attainment compared with high-income students.” 

Robert J. Massa, co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now, similarly told Inside Higher Ed that he found the data “troubling but again not surprising that first generation and lower income applicants are declining in number” because they are the group “disproportionately impacted by COVID and its financial impact.”

“We have to be laser focused on this,” Eric Waldo, Common App’s chief access and equity officer, told The Chronicle. “We don’t want to see a lost generation of students who end up not going on to further their education because of this pandemic. …We have to find those students and make sure they have what they need to apply to college.”

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