Mar 24, 2024 - Economy

It's a chaotic year for college admissions

Illustration of a tangled tassel hanging from a graduation cap.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Financial aid forms are more confusing, standardized testing is a moving target and there's no more affirmative action — this is an unusually chaotic college application season for both students and colleges.

The big picture: These immediate changes are fueling a larger debate about the future of higher education, as some students weigh whether college is even worth it.

Zoom in: A new version of the federal financial-aid application, known as FAFSA, has upended the process, The Wall Street Journal reports.

  • When the new forms rolled out in December, technical issues prevented important revisions and system glitches kept some families from submitting it at all.
  • 29% of high school seniors had submitted FAFSA forms as of March 1, compared with 45% at the same point in 2023, the Journal notes.

Why it matters: Because the financial-aid process is working so poorly, some students are now facing the possibility of enrolling at a college without knowing whether they'll ultimately be able to afford it.

  • Some colleges have extended the deadlines for students to commit.

Major changes to standardized testing are also making the admissions process more confusing.

  • Many schools made standardized tests optional during the pandemic, but some elite institutions, including Yale and Dartmouth, are now requiring them again.
  • Students and college counselors don't really know whether forgoing optional tests will put them at a disadvantage.
  • And the SAT itself is undergoing major changes. It’s now digital-only and about an hour shorter, raising new questions about how best to prepare.

All of this comes as colleges and universities navigate their first application season without affirmative action.

  • Colleges have changed their software to hide applicants’ race from admissions officers, and have held new trainings on what information to ignore in personal essays, the WSJ reports. And students are unsure if they should be mentioning race at all in those essays.

Zoom out: Colleges and universities are dealing with a larger reckoning.

  • Enrollment has been falling for several years, especially among four-year degree programs.
  • At the same time, the share of Americans who say they trust higher education has fallen from 57% in 2015 to 36% in 2023, according to Gallup.
  • Students are debating whether the steep — and rising — cost of college is worth it, and they want the government to act against debt.

Reality check: Despite this season’s chaos and the larger debate, data shows that a college degree is still worth it based on graduates’ future earnings.

  • But colleges have work to do to make that case to the next generations of potential students.
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