What’s New? 5 Big Changes in College Admission

Adults naturally draw upon their college admissions experiences when talking to teens, even if those events are from a time before smartphones–and a lot has changed since then. So, it is important that I inform families about how college admissions processes operate today compared to a few years or decades ago.

Today, college admissions officers may use websites instead of viewbooks; video chats instead of campus interviews; casual barbecues instead of formal open houses; and selfie opportunities with mascots instead of information sessions about academic programs. Some of these changes make the process more accessible, others just make it more confusing.

Colleges look and feel different today, too. Campuses have been reshaped and rebranded to include new technologies, buildings, programs, demographics, and streams of funding. At my recent Northwestern University reunion, I toured campus and discovered new residence halls beyond what had been the edge of campus. Some new buildings sat on a landfill that was previously a watery Lake Michigan inlet. Also, Northwestern’s enrollment has increased from 4,500 to 8,000 undergraduates, which makes it a much bigger university now.

“Who’s on first, what’s on second, and I don’t know is on third,” is a famous sketch from Abbott and Costello’s 1930’s comedy act, yet it applies to college admissions today. I urge families to set aside what they knew about colleges from earlier times and study current statistics and facts using reliable sources (I share my favorite sources below). Next, I encourage discovery of colleges and universities beyond those that are most well known. The U.S. market includes nearly 4,000 colleges and universities. Many of our world’s best leaders, artists, thinkers, and productive citizens are graduates of colleges beyond the best-known or highest-ranked institutions. So, let me acquaint you with specific changes in college admissions–and perhaps the most significant ones:

Admit Rates

Decades ago, highly selective colleges admitted about 20-25% of applicants, today the most selective colleges admit 4-10%. As a result, even straight-A students with the highest test scores are at risk of being rejected from these colleges. These colleges can select among students with “distinguished excellence” in accomplishments, prizes, and rankings on national or international stages and those who have overcome huge barriers or changed life trajectories (theirs or someone else’s). Reliable information and acceptance rates can be found in college profiles at collegeboard.org.


Today, the highest-priced U.S. colleges and universities cost over $70,000 per year. Families can lower costs or increase the value of these institutions if their students can gain access to significant scholarships, research programs, or honors colleges. Increasingly, I am witnessing new behaviors in college choices based upon cost even in wealthy families. Families should consider their options with in-state public universities, two-year degrees, career certifications, and institutions outside the U.S. Then, check for any hidden costs especially ones that might increase the time it takes to complete your program. Parents should stay involved in the cost-benefit analyses of their students’ college choices and perhaps reserve veto power over final decisions. Final college decisions solely in the hands of their teenagers, may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and significantly impact the extended family’s long-term financial wellness. The website collegescorecard.ed.gov provides cost information with each college profile.

Scholarships + Financial Aid

Families should explore whether each student is eligible for merit or need-based scholarships or financial aid. Merit scholarships can reduce the cost of attendance for students with strong credentials. Also, colleges that are well-endowed and allocate sufficient funds to support needy students can provide impressive financial aid packages. Today, the biggest source of higher education scholarships is often colleges themselves because they benefit from the student’s enrollment. In your discussions with college officials, ask them about: average student indebtedness at graduation; how a family’s demonstrated financial need that is met internally with what proportion of grants and loans; and the frequency of parent loans or gaps in financial aid packages. There is little value in a letter of admission if not accompanied by sufficient dollars to attend? There are informative sections on paying for college at collegeboard.org.

Messaging + Marketing

College recruitment efforts still include beautiful scenes featuring lovely landscapes,  park-like settings, and impressive facilities. In addition, today’s information uses multiple platforms and strategic messages focused on keywords designed to influence your decision-making. At today’s prices, visiting a college campus can be like entering a car dealership where the Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) is $100,000 or more. The focus of college officials is to enroll your student, if possible. Typically, I visit 10-20 college campuses each year. Last year, I visited a university with a recent sexual assault scandal and noticed the frequent use of words safety and security by campus officials. Often when I visit very large campuses, I notice that everyone uses words like small and friendly. Consider collegescorecard.ed.gov as the “Carfax” for college data.

Degree Requirements

Learn about what it takes to earn a college degree: total credits required; courses needed for intended major(s); and core requirements, if any? Variations in these requirements among colleges and universities may work to your student’s advantage or disadvantage. Analyze college requirements with regard to cost, on-time graduation, and post-graduate opportunities. Today, the pathway to a college degree is increasingly complicated by required classes that can only be taken on-campus or specific upper level course sequences that cannot be taken during high school or at community college. Pay careful attention to degree requirements to keep a 4-year degree from taking longer. Check information provided by each college’s registrar to learn more about what it takes to earn a degree.

Enjoy the journey of college discovery although you may be surprised by what is new. Use the tools noted above to learn about today’s process and explore colleges that may have improved since you last looked, which may be before smartphones, smart speakers, or WiFi. There are great colleges beyond the best ranked or best known; look for those whose athletic teams do not play on major networks or whose students earned a couple of B’s in high school. Also, consider the services of an independent educational consultant (IEC) to help you navigate these changes and many others not listed here. As an IEC, I study today’s higher education issues, visit campuses, meet with college officials, and use current knowledge to serve clients. I focus on each student’s needs, which may be different from siblings, classmates or friends. And, I can work with students when schools are closed for the day, the summer or holiday breaks.