Competitive colleges post record-low acceptance rates as regional schools struggle to fill seats

The nation’s most competitive schools recently announced that they received a record number of applications for the class of 2026, leading to ultra-low acceptance rates. It is a different story at the many community colleges and public and private regional institutions around the country still scrambling to fill their classes and re-enroll students amid a strong job market, demographic changes, and fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, The Washington Post reports.

Test-optional policies shaping application, admit trends

The test-optional admissions policies implemented at every Ivy League school, and many other universities, during the pandemic emboldened many students to apply to top schools, admissions officials tell Inside Higher Ed. However, that application boom also led to a record number of rejections and lengthy waitlists at elite schools. “The most selective schools are even more selective than they were,” Michelle McAnaney, president of the college counseling company The College Spy, explains to CBS News.

Some of the nation’s ultra-selective schools chose not to publish their acceptance rates this year, hoping to de-emphasize the perceived value of selectivity. Others posted record lows: five Ivy League universities publicly reported the lowest admissions rate in the histories of their institutions, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Certain selective universities say the influx of applications has allowed them to increase the diversity of their new classes. Rice University says its sent offers of admission to students from more countries than ever before. The University of Michigan says that much of its application growth came from a 17% increase in applications from first-generation college students, a 13% increase in those from international students, and an eight percent increase in applications from students of color. Harvard says nearly a quarter of its newly accepted students come from families with annual incomes below $75,000, which qualifies them for a program that covers tuition and other expenses included in the cost of attendance. White students make up only 40% of students admitted to Harvard this year, after being a majority of accepted students a few years ago, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Regional universities confront ongoing decline

However, national trends paint a different picture of college enrollment. According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, overall college enrollment has fallen 5.1% since fall 2019. Enrollment losses have been particularly pronounced at smaller, less-selective institutions, especially community colleges and regional public universities. The dynamic is “doubly problematic because regional schools also tend to serve more disadvantaged families,” The Washington Post notes.

For instance, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), enrollment has fallen to 9,300 students, a 12% decline since 2019 and a 40% decline since its peak in 2012. The enrollment declines have forced IUP to merge departments, cut programs, reduce its tuition for in-state students, and let go of a quarter of its workforce. Forty percent of IUP’s students qualify for Pell grants, nearly double the percentage of students in financial need at the state’s flagship, Pennsylvania State University.

Now, IUP and other regional universities facing steep enrollment declines are focused on student recruitment and retention, and convincing them that a college education is a worthwhile long-term investment, even in a hot job market offering attractive wages in the short term.

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That goal is especially hard to achieve in states like Pennsylvania with low higher education funding levels—and high public university tuition and fees as a result.

Another part of the enrollment problem for less well-known universities, McAnaney says, “is that people are looking at the rankings—the same top 30 to 50 colleges.” “If you look outside them, there are wonderful hidden gems,” she tells CBS News.

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