In January of 1990—the year I turned sixteen—as a new decade began, my brothers, some friends, and I made predictions of what our lives would be like in 30 years. The twist was that we could only predict for each other, not ourselves. When cleaning out our parents’ home recently, we discovered our prophecies written on a faded legal pad, and as this year begins we reviewed them to check on our progress. Some prognostications were serious, others in jest, and while our pact (thankfully) precludes me from disclosing most of the details, I will say that a few were right on target, however most woefully inaccurate.
What a different world we inhabit today than the one my brothers and I predicted! My own son turns sixteen this year, and while I am not the formal psychologist that the group forecasted, my vocation of college counseling actually isn’t too far from the mark, in a field that is changing with every given year. I am curious to know what my son and daughter’s world will look like in 30 years, just as I wonder what is in store for my profession, one that has been more turbulent than most. In the spirit of our teenage exercise, I asked my friends and colleagues in college admission to make predictions for the years to come. While some are more idealistic and some more cynical, many of my colleagues remain convinced that a move towards greater transparency, equity, and access in higher education is what the future holds. As anyone following college admission might expect, predictions focused mostly on testing, finances, repercussions from the Varsity Blues scandal, and the implications of changes to the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) Code of Ethics and Professional Practices (CEPP). What seems clear to many is that the current system cannot sustain itself much longer.
It is not all doom and gloom of unraveling ethics and financial ruin in admission during the years to come. Ever the optimist, Whitney Soule, dean of admission and student aid at Bowdoin College says, “I believe colleges and universities are thinking creatively about how to make the process better for students and we'll start to see change.” Rodney Morrison, vice president of enrollment management at the University of Delaware agrees, predicting that “schools will expand their holistic approach.” Jody Glassman, director of university admission at Florida International University also predicts that “there will be more and greater disruption as the public pushes for transparency.”
Diane Campbell, director of college counseling at Liberty Common High School says “my prediction is that more colleges are going to rethink the application process and provide ways that students can apply with less barriers—test optional, self-reporting, less (or no) letters of recommendation, and essays that capture students self-reflection.” She adds, “I predict that we will move towards a more accessible and cohesive process. Admission has been exposed—the cards are on the table and we're ready for a new deck!” Todd Rinehart, vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Denver echoes this sentiment, saying “with a number of organizations taking a deeper dive into how college admission can be different, more equitable, and easier to navigate, I believe we'll start to see some great recommendations developing that can be implemented in future years.” He adds, “the one silver lining of some of the scandals and challenges that presented themselves this past year is that they've stimulated conversations to make our profession better, more equitable, and even more committed to our ethics and serving students.”
Many admission leaders are wary of the changes ahead due to the Department of Justice’s investigation
into NACAC’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. The investigation and potential lawsuit resulted in the Association removing key guiding principles against offering incentives for students to apply Early Decision and the recruitment of students who have committed elsewhere or transfer students. Gil Villanueva, associate vice president and dean of admission at the University of Richmond predicts that “colleges and universities will be adversely affected by the suspension of key NACAC ethical guidelines” Debra Johns, an associate director of admission at Yale University agrees to say, “with the NACAC changes to our code of ethics and professional behavior, I believe there will be institutions that will decide to incorporate policies to provide incentives to students and families.” She worries “that institutions will play on families’ fears, lack of information and education about the college admission process, and misinformation will abound,” adding that this will result in a “heavier burden on school counselors.”
Thomas Bear, vice president for enrollment management at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology specifically predicts that “with the changes to the ethical standards driving our profession by NACAC, there will be colleges who miss their first-year class size by May 1 (the National Candidate Reply Date) and make significant scholarship offers on May 2.” This attempt to attract more students to enroll who have committed to another school would result in colleges further discounting their tuition and as Bear explains, would also “reduce institutional revenue generation.” Christopher Lydon, vice president for enrollment management and marketing at The Catholic University of America agrees, saying that “May 1—which already is not the finish line for many institutions—will become even less of the end than it is now.” He foresees that “with the likely advent of post-deposit and post-May 1 recruitment, getting more of what an institution needs and/or keeping the deposits an institution has, will require more attention.” Lydon adds, “the journey from May 1 to Move-in Day will be more of an extension of the student recruitment cycle than ever before.”
Jonathan Burdick, vice provost for enrollment at Cornell University also anticipates that “colleges are going to provide a range of incentives to their 'customers' that will make early decision agreements and the May 1 deadline mushier.” From the secondary school perspective, Chris Reeves, a counselor at Beechwood High School in Kentucky observes that with this increased competition, “a greater number of students will be changing their minds after May 1, creating a nationwide domino effect that has never existed.” And these dominos could potentially continue to fall well into a student’s college experience. Matt DeGreeff, dean of college counseling and student enrichment at Middlesex School predicts that “transfer admissions is going to become a huge mess once colleges figure out how to recruit students from each other.” He also wonders if some colleges will not only try to recruit former applicants but target top students in other programs (like athletic recruiting).”
One prediction is for sure. Enrollment management is going to become increasingly unpredictable. Gregory Roberts, dean of undergraduate admission at the University of Virginia projects that “schools will be using their waitlist more than in years past and it will be increasing difficult to predict yield in a highly competitive and intense admission environment.” Within this environment, Julie Kerich, director of admission at Franklin and Marshall College estimates that “students will take longer to commit to their college or university.” She adds, “this is a prediction which saddens me because I think extending the uncertainty of where a student eventually enrolls will only add to the student's anxiety.” Despite the potential for growing student uncertainty Bill Conley, vice president for enrollment management at Bucknell University predicts “the ongoing sophistication of artificial intelligence in the modeling of student decision making will gain great momentum as colleges seek better answers to who is going to enroll.” In the future we might hear, “Siri, build me a freshman class.”
Mention financial sustainability to any admission leader and you are likely to watch their blood pressure rise right in front of you. Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admission at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, foresees “an economic recession that will accelerate current trends to force challenging realities well in advance of the demographic cliff of 2025.” Ken Anselment, vice president for enrollment and communications at Lawrence University imagines we will hear “more stories of colleges missing their classes and their budgets, resulting in further cuts to people and programs on college campuses as well as accelerating systemic change in how colleges price and discount themselves.” Mike Sexton, vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University takes it one step further saying, “admission officers will be held accountable for institutional failed business plans.” Falone Serna, vice president for enrollment management at Whittier College predicts that all of this will force “more leaders in higher education to the realization that revenue from enrollment being an institution's sole source of significant revenue is not sustainable.”
Meanwhile, from the student perspective, Charles Murphy, director of freshman and international admission at the University of Florida, says “while still not law yet, my hope is the FUTURE Act
will genuinely help with simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for students and data sharing between government agencies.” He explains that “this should lead to higher FAFSA completion rates, fewer students needing verification, and ultimately help more students get access to financial aid so they can enroll and graduate from college.” Karen Mason, director of college counseling at Germantown Academy imagines that “small regional colleges will either be forced to merge or close as tuition escalates and families will not be able to afford or maybe unwilling to invest, in a non-brand name education.” Beechwood High School’s Reeves also predicts that “as college costs rise, two-year colleges and trade schools will see a huge increase in enrollment and status.” Paul Kaser, lead college counselor at Bergen County Academies in New Jersey adds his projection that “competitive American students will increasingly look at universities outside of the U.S.” He says, “the world is getting smaller and international experience for more than a few months studying abroad is becoming very desirable for employers. Not to mention that U.S. students are not over-applying and over-saturating the admission pools of top global universities yet, so there is seemingly less direct competition to get into a top university abroad than there is here in the States.”
There is almost unanimous agreement that the test-optional movement will be one of the biggest shifts in college admission in the coming years, continuing to grow exponentially. How fast and how widespread is tough to pinpoint, but it would not be surprising if this is the decade that at least one, if not several, Ivy League institutions will embrace these equity and access friendly policies. My personal prediction (and I have no inside information) is that Yale will be the brave Ivy pioneers on this front—though to other Ivy deans, please note that I am certainly open to being proven wrong here (challenge accepted?)!
Brian Doherty, a school counselor at Westford Academy in Massachusetts projects that “80% of schools will be test-optional or flexible (allowing students to combine scores from various tests) by the end of this decade.” Lawrence University’s Anselment also anticipates an increase, speculating that “state systems will join the test-optional movement in growing numbers.” He estimates that as a result that “with pressure on their secondary-to-college revenue stream, testing agencies (College Board and ACT) will have to hustle to develop new revenue streams, which may have some consequences at the elementary, middle, and secondary levels.” Speaking to the other potential impact of state institutions no longer requiring standardized tests, Whittier’s Serna predicts that “private institutions in those states will follow suit.” He says that “many people don't realize that state schools are usually the primary competition for most privates, and since they command a larger part of the market their decisions will usually set the standard for the majority of the field.” A perfect example he gives is the impact that the University of California system had on testing when they stopped requiring SAT subject exams. Whether it is large state institutions or the Ivy League that starts the domino effect, testing in admission will undoubtedly look very different in ten years.
Anna Follensbee, college counselor at Gilman School dials down further, predicting that at the very least, “colleges will continue to move away from SAT subject tests.” Middlesex School’s DeGreeff agrees, adding “the essay section and writing section of the SAT and ACT will disappear.” Daniel Evans, director of college counseling at William Penn Charter School also imagines that the “SAT will follow ACT and implement sectional and computer-based testing.” When asked about these potential changes, Cornell’s Burdick shares “more a hope than a prediction.” He would like to “see a larger number of testing agencies offering a wider variety of shorter tests, designed to measure a greater range of meaningful skills.” Burdick adds that “these short tests could be easier and less expensive to administer, more secure, and more widely differentiated for different types of institutions as destinations.” In short, he sees a future where “one-size-fits-all testing will become passe.” Here’s hoping!
Meanwhile, Catholic University’s Lydon, predicts that “the Indiana and California state system discussions (about standardized testing) are likely to be a consequential tipping point for required testing in college admission.” He explains that “there have been close to 50 schools that announced some form of a test-optional policy in 2019” and adds that “if public university systems and individual institutions start moving in this direction, this number will grow dramatically in the next five years.” Lydon believes “institutions that continue requiring standardized tests will have to answer more specifically about how they are used and what value they provide.” Thomas Bear, vice president for enrollment management at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology agrees, saying that “schools requiring standardized testing will need to emphasize an ethical manner in admission decision-making that is respectful to students' environments and experiences.”
Asked about his opinion on changes in testing ahead, Santa Clara’s Sexton simply answers “D. All of the above.” Clearly, he has a strategy to outsmart standardized testing!
Seeing Clearly Into the Future
In thirty years, when my son turns 46, we (hopefully I will still be around) will be starting the decade of the 2050’s. It is hard to imagine what the world will look like or what admission to college will entail. Perhaps an algorithm will dictate one’s college list (picture Post-Secondary Pandora), or iRobot will develop the automated regional admission representative. Maybe there will simply be a Hogwarts style Sorting Hat that places students in the right match for higher education. Only time will tell. What we can control is what happens this year, and those that immediately follow. Fortunately, there are thoughtful admission leaders like the ones quoted above, and many others, who will seek out policies and practices that are mission-aligned and student centered. Together, we will move forward into the future of higher education.