Early application numbers show increases, especially among students from underrepresented backgrounds

A new report on the state of first-year college applications as of Nov. 1 shows that 836,679 students had applied for enrollment in the 2024-25 academic year, representing a 41% increase over the 592,390 students who applied to college in 2019–20. The “deadline update” from the Common App—a platform where students can apply to over 1,000 member colleges—attributes the jump in large part to an increase in the number of applicants who identify as underrepresented minorities (URM). 

The number of applicants identifying as URM rose 67% between 2019–20 and 2023-24, compared to just a 30% increase in non-URM applicants. Despite concerns about the impact of the June Supreme Court ruling that ended race-conscious admissions, early data suggest the number of students of color applying to college has not been negatively impacted by the decision.

Applications from students of color, low-income students rise

While the majority of this fall’s applicants identify as white, the share of white applicants has decreased from 59.4% in 2019–20 to 53.9% in 2023–24. The share of URM applicants, meanwhile, rose from 21.7% to 26.3%. The most substantial growth occurred among American Indian/Alaska Native (+86%) and Black/African American (+70%) applicants.

The growth in URM applicants is due in part to a shift in high school graduate demographics and a 77% increase in Minority-Serving Institutions using the Common App platform since 2019, Mark Freeman, Common App’s vice president of data analytics and research, tells Inside Higher Ed. Colleges are also intentionally recruiting students from underrepresented backgrounds. 

Earlier this month, the Brookings Institution reported that the end of race-based affirmative action would have a minimal impact on the majority of Black, Native American, and Latine students, who are more likely to enroll at two- and four-year institutions that accept the majority of their applicants and did not practice race-conscious admissions prior to the Supreme Court ruling. According to Brookings, only four-year colleges with the lowest acceptance rates considered applicants’ race/ethnicity as part of a holistic admissions process, and private colleges were more likely than public to implement race-conscious admissions policies. Nine states had also already banned affirmative action in admissions for public colleges before it was ruled unconstitutional this summer.

However, Brookings notes that the end of race-conscious admissions may lead to declines in the number of underrepresented students enrolled at highly selective institutions. Attending highly selective schools has been shown to have an outsized impact on URM students, as their graduates have a higher chance of landing leadership positions and earning incomes in the top 1%. The decision may also impact policies outside of admissions, including race-conscious scholarships, supports, and outreach programs.

Rise in early decision applicants

Commenting on the latest application data, Common App officials say the data reflects a recent surge in applications for early admissions, noting that the combined number of early-action and early-decision applications comes close to the number of those submitted for the regular-decision deadline. In addition, the number of colleges in the Common App network offering early admission has increased in recent years, Freeman told Inside Higher Ed.

Since the Supreme Court ruling, the early-decision application process—in which students pledge to enroll if accepted, in exchange for earlier consideration and notification—has come under increased scrutiny for exacerbating inequities in higher education, Higher Ed Dive says. The process requires applicants to make a commitment even before seeing their financial aid package. Students from wealthier ZIP codes were twice as likely—and students who attended independent private high schools were 3.5 times as likely—to apply early decision than their peers, according to a 2022 report from the nonprofit Education Reform Now.

Additional increases

The number of applicants identifying as first-generation college students—which Common App defines as students whose parents do not hold a bachelor’s degree or higher—surged 67% above pre-pandemic levels (compared to a 34% increase in continuing-generation applicants), per Common App’s socioeconomic data analysis. The number of applicants self-reporting eligibility for a Common App fee waiver, provided to low-income applicants, increased 100% between 2019-20 and 2023-24, compared to a 28% increase in applicants not reporting fee waiver eligibility. During that period, the number of applicants from lower-income ZIP codes grew more (+52%) than their peers in wealthier ZIP codes (+34%).

Growth in the number of international applicants outpaced that for domestic applicants (87% vs. 38%), with the fastest growth occurring among applicants who hold citizenship in Ghana, Bangladesh, Nepal, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, reflecting recent data from the Department of State and Institute of International Education.

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