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Years of experience has given colleges and universities the confidence to know how many students to accept and how many of them will enroll. The result has been fairly consistent numbers of freshmen showing up each fall.

That’s changing dramatically.

The Hechinger Report’s higher education editor, Jon Marcus, speaks in this installment of NPR’s Indicator podcast about how, on top of a decline in enrollment, admissions offices now must contend with changes in behavior that have made their calculations much more difficult.

First, a vital source of recruiting is in decline. Colleges and universities rely on the SAT and ACT tests to provide them with the scores and contact information of students, which they annually buy (or “license,” as the testing companies prefer to  call it). But a new generation of students is opting out of allowing their names to be sold. And Covid concerns (and test-optional policies at large numbers of higher education institutions) have meant fewer of them are taking these tests in the first place.

Second, students are applying to more schools apiece, thanks in large part to the streamlined process made possible by the Common Application. The number of applications sent out by the average student is up from five to six, meaning colleges are receiving 20 percent more applications without knowing if the students behind them are seriously interested in enrolling. Some college counselors are encouraging their students to send as many as 20 or 30 applications apiece.

Third, students are putting down deposits — which range from about $100 to $1,000 — at more than one school, making it impossible to know which one they’ll eventually pick. Other admitted students, even after this point, just don’t show up at all, a phenomenon called “melt” that particularly affects young people from low-income families concerned about whether they can afford to pay.

Fourth, in a deal with the Justice Department, admissions offices dropped a long-held policy under which they agreed to not poach each other’s students after May 1. Now students are fair game even if they have put down deposits.

Hear more about these and other trends here.

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