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Selective colleges see surge in applications from first-generation students

A view of the University of Massachusetts Boston campus. Admissions officers there have managed to reach underserved students through an aggressive outreach program, the school said.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Large, selective private colleges are seeing a dramatic rise in the number of first-generation and low-income applicants, as well as applicants of color this year, following the decision by most schools to make standardized tests optional.

The shift away from testing was a necessity because of the pandemic, but also part of an ongoing reconsideration of their use in admissions.

This year, applications from first-generation students to large, more selective private colleges, for example, rose 20 percent, while those students’ applications to large but less selective schools fell by 4 percent, according to data released last month by the Common App. The numbers for low-income students and students of color are similar.


This trend is one piece of encouraging news after a year that has seen low-income students disproportionately affected by the virus and remote learning. As acceptance letters and deposits continue to trickle in over the coming weeks, a clearer picture should emerge of the way that the pandemic has reshaped the college-going population.

This increase in applications from chronically underrepresented groups of students comes after months of data that showed these students were applying to college at drastically lower rates during the pandemic than in the years prior. Concerned about that downturn, institutions over the past two months extended application deadlines and found new ways to reach out to these groups, and rates have improved. Much of the growth has been concentrated in larger, more selective schools that admit fewer than 50 percent of applicants.

Jenny Rickard, president and chief executive of the Common Application, hopes one silver-lining of this challenging year will be that these chronically underserved groups of students will have more opportunities in education. Selective colleges have long heralded inclusion and worked to recruit a more diverse pool of applicants. Those schools should take advantage of these new applicants, she said.


“This really is the opportunity for the more selective institutions to impact social mobility in the way that they have been striving to do,” Rickard said. “This is the year.”

After seeing the decline, the Common Application alerted its members and urged schools to reach out to their applicant pools and give students more time, she said. But despite the uptick in applications in the early months of 2021, many colleges had already locked in early decision students last fall.

In December the number of first-generation and low-income students who applied to all colleges was down 7 percent from prepandemic levels, but as of March 1 the number had been whittled to just 1 percent for first-generation applicants, and low-income students had gained even more ground, surpassing prepandemic numbers by 1 percent.

First-generation students in particular benefitted from not having to submit SAT or ACT scores, data from the Common Application show. In the year before the pandemic, 83 percent of first-generation students applying to large, private, selective schools submitted test scores. This year it was just 36 percent.

Angel Pérez, chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said many institutions will likely not finalize their enrollments until the fall. Many smaller, less selective schools have had a difficult time recruiting students this year, in part because they are reluctant to pay their high tuition when courses are remote.

Many schools, including the majority who accept the Common Application, are still taking applications and it is also not too late to file the application for federal financial aid.


But Perez said high school guidance counselors are having a harder time helping students with applications and financial aid forms because they are not physically in schools together.

“We are really worried about whether or not we are going to see fewer students, first-generation students, enroll in the fall,” he said.

Policy makers have taken note of the disparate impact of the pandemic on certain groups of students. In Massachusetts, state officials are working to make it easier to complete the federal financial aid form, which has been a major stumbling block to accessing college during the pandemic.

Statewide, the number of students completing the document is down 7 percent from last year, but in high schools where students likely need the money the most, it has dropped by two or three times that rate.

State officials have several plans in the works to help students complete the form and other efforts to increase college access and readiness. Plans include a summer bridge program in coordination with the community colleges designed to give students extra preparation.

Admissions officers at the University of Massachusetts Boston have managed to reach underserved students through an aggressive outreach program, the school said.

As a result, the majority-minority institution has seen a 14 percent increase in first-year applications for the fall including an 8.5 percent increase in applications from first-generation students. The number of low-income students who applied is on track with last year at approximately 43 percent of applicants, according to a school spokeswoman.


Early in the admissions cycle, admissions officers recognized it would be essential to proactively engage underrepresented students and their families, she said. The school is also monitoring the rate of federal financial aid applications to make sure students complete that step, she said.

Other states in the region have noticed similar trends that could spell trouble for their workforces in the future and have proposed massive overhauls to the admissions process as a result. In Connecticut, the governor recently introduced a sweeping higher education bill that includes several measures designed to increase college access, including automatic admission to college based on high school grades and GPA.

“We are doing this from an equity lens. We are doing this because there are students — black and brown, low income, inner city districts, who can go to college, should go to college, are ready to go to college, but don’t,” said Mohit Agrawal, deputy policy director for Governor Ned Lamont.

Agrawal said the bill is in part a response to the troubling trends in college access during the pandemic but also part of a longer-term strategy to create a strong workforce for the state.

“We are really trying to meet both the moment but also the longer trend of the state’s economic needs,” he said.