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Despite COVID, College Application Numbers Are Up. But Not For All.

Frankie Graziano
Connecticut Public Radio

The pandemic has redefined what it’s like to go to college. With the focus shifted to virtual learning, students missed out on traditional class discussions and social activities -- familiar and beloved parts of the college lifestyle. As a result, many assumed higher education would take a hit. 


But application rates for 2021 are showing signs of hope. Some universities, like the University of Connecticut, are even seeing record interest. 

Between the main and regional campuses, more than 38,000 students applied to UConn for the incoming class of 2025. That’s the highest number UConn has seen yet. The prior record was 35,980 applicants for the class of 2020,according to the university.


“This is really exciting for the university. We’re seeing really healthy applications from students across Connecticut. But the biggest increase was from out-of-state students from New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York,” said Nathan Fuerst, UConn’s vice president for enrollment planning and management. 


He said potential students seem to be broadening their college options while also targeting schools in close proximity given the pandemic. 


Regardless of why applicants chose UConn, Fuerst said, the university’s participation in the test-optional trend probably helped. 


The policy, in place for the next three years, lets students decide whether to submit their SAT or ACT standardized test scores with their applications. The move was adopted after several years of research suggested that test scores could be an unreliable metric,according to UConn


“We all know test scores are strongly correlated to income, race and ethnicity,” Fuerst said. “Some would say tests have some glaring biases. So when we see those correlations, we worry how it affects students. We know that there are a lot of students that don’t have the highest test scores every year, but there are also other students who simply don’t put themselves in that process because of a hurdle like that.” Fuerst believes the policy makes a strong statement that the university recognizes the many ways students can be exceptional beyond test scores. 


According toCommon App, an application system used for over 900 colleges and universities, application rates are up nationwide. In New England, the system saw an increase of about 9.5% with many other regions seeing double-digit percent increases. 


“Nationally the trend is the elite private and flagship public [schools] are way up,” said Scott Jaschik, an editor with Inside Higher Ed. “They are doing very well for a few reasons. One is it’s always been good to go to a good university, and some people feel that it’s worth it. And the other thing is these places have some money. They have the resources to put into higher education.” 


Jaschik said the test-optional policy is a player, especially for incoming students from underrepresented communities. 


“A lot of people are saying, ‘Hey, why not apply to the best universities around?’” Jaschik added.  


That’s evident in UConn’s applicant pool: 45% of would-be students identify as minorities. UConn’s data is on par with Common App, which also found that first-generation, fee-waiver recipients and applicants from underrepresented minorities were more likely to take advantage of the test-optional policy. 


But not all colleges and universities are experiencing an uptick in applications. 


While the growing interest in selective public and private schools is starting to show a promising post-pandemic future for higher education, the trend isn’t so favorable for smaller, less selective schools. Regional public schools and community colleges, which primarily serve low-income students, have seen a decrease in interest. 


“These colleges are very important institutions,” Jaschik said. “They serve the state and students who aren’t having bidding wars from elite Ivy schools. If they lose money from not having as many students and then state funds, these colleges are hurting.” 

Copyright 2021 Connecticut Public Radio

Camila Vallejo
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