Ask the College Guy: Will students deferring their college this fall make it more difficult for the next class of 2021 to get in?

For the Monitor
Published: 9/15/2020 9:02:21 AM

Question: Will the increased number of students deferring their college acceptance this fall make it more difficult for the high school class of 2021 to get into college?

Answer: This is a question that I have heard often in the last few weeks, as college-bound high school seniors and their parents/caregivers are feeling anxious about many of the unknowns in admission. There is growing concern that because the pandemic has forced many colleges and universities to be remote, students who were to start their first year of college this fall will take a gap year, therefore reducing the number of spots available in the fall of 2021. First, we need to make sure we have the facts straight. In early August, the Boston Globe reported that “droves of first-year students at top-tier schools are choosing to defer their admission for a year,” including 20% of Harvard’s newly admitted students. To be sure, more students are delaying the start of their college experience, especially at more selective schools. However, we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions about how widespread this phenomenon is, and how, if at all, it will impact high school seniors.

At most colleges and universities, the number of students who deferred their enrollment is still unclear – data is not readily available and the situation remains fluid as classes begin. Most of the admission leaders with whom I spoke late this summer were predicting increased deferrals, but certainly not “droves.” We risk making blanket assumptions when we focus on the “top-tier schools” like Harvard and their uber selective kin. The truth is, acceptance rates at that tiny group of schools are so low to begin with (under 10%), that obsessing about reduced spots in admission is a fool’s errand. If Princeton’s admit rate is 5.6% instead of 6.5% next year, what will that really mean to an individual student’s chances of making it through the gates? The national average acceptance rate is nearly two-thirds of all applicants, so there is room for everyone, and all indications suggest that this year’s deferrals will not have a noticeable impact on the high school class of 2021. If anything, there may be more spots. On a recent webinar, James Nondorf, Dean of College Admissions and Financial Aid University of Chicago, predicted that this year’s seniors will be better off because colleges and universities might accept more students due to financial and enrollment concerns.

Jerry Lucido is the executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, where they study “educational access, admissions, and outcomes.” He also has decades of experience leading admission offices at the Universities of Arizona, North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Southern California. Needless to say, he has seen enrollment trends fluctuate over time and Lucido speculates the deferrals are unlikely to reduce opportunities for next year’s class. He points out that “Institutional budgets are dire,” and says, “I think this will ensure good opportunity a year from now. My sense of the industry is that we do not allow deferrals that will harm the integrity of the process for a future year.”  

Angel Pérez is the CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the membership organization for admission professionals. While they do not yet have data on deferrals for this year, he has been in contact with many enrollment leaders and explains that “most admission officers don’t anticipate a significant drop in acceptance rates.”

He adds, “the reality is the predictive models [for enrollment management] used in the past are not as relevant as they once were. Most schools would rather see slight over-enrollment than risk not meeting enrollment targets.” Pérez says, “In such a volatile and highly unpredictable environment, admission officers are trying to balance student needs with enrollment complexities.” His advice to students is “Don’t spend time and energy worrying about what you can’t control (like admit rates). Spend your energy on the things you can control like thriving in your classes and creating a compelling narrative for your college application.” 

So, there you have it: It’s unlikely that somewhat increased deferrals for the incoming class of 2020 will have much impact on those in 2021. Take Pérez’s advice and look for opportunities to share how you are more than a number, rather than being preoccupied with trying to predict what the numbers will be.

Brennan Barnard of Hopkinton is the director of college counseling and outreach at The Derryfield School and the college admission program advisor at The Making Caring Common project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is co-author of the book, “The Truth about College Admis sion: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.”

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