Colleges Are Missing Out on Students Who Start — But Don’t Finish —...

Diversity and Equity

Colleges Are Missing Out on Students Who Start — But Don’t Finish — Their Applications

By Emma Davis     Sep 12, 2023

Colleges Are Missing Out on Students Who Start — But Don’t Finish — Their Applications

Twice a week, Rofiat Olasunkanmi, 22, heads back to Brooklyn to her alma mater, Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School. Now a senior at New York University, Olasunkanmi helps high school seniors navigate applying to college, a process she personally recalls being dominated by concern about finances and a general sense of anxiety because no one in her family did it in the United States before her.

Her older siblings received degrees in Nigeria, where her parents still live, so she’d had to figure out a lot on her own, a burden she now tries to alleviate for the students she works with. She aims to support them from start to finish, beginning with applications for the City University of New York at minimum and then moving on to the Common Application.

“But I’m not there every day, and Common App is very lengthy,” she said, “so they need to ensure that they’re doing the parts that they need to get done while I'm not there.”

Rofiat Olasunkanmi helps high school seniors apply to college. Photo courtesy of Olasunkanmi.

The Common Application was first created with the goal to simplify the college admissions process by allowing students to submit one application to multiple institutions. However, as Olasunkanmi mentioned, it takes significant time to complete, an estimated six to eight weeks, according to admissions counselors.

The COVID-19 pandemic complicated the application process further with disruptions to in-person advising, testing and extracurricular activities. But barriers to completion predate the pandemic.

During the last pre-pandemic college application cycle, 2018-19, nearly 1.2 million students accessed the Common App, created a profile and began working on at least one application. But a quarter of those students, almost 300,000, did not end up submitting any application through Common App, according to a working paper published this August.

Researchers characterized this subset of students as “non-submitters.”

“Non-submitters” were more likely than students who submitted applications to have lower educational-occupational aspirations, be racial minorities, have parents who completed lower levels of education and live in communities with lower socioeconomic status — but they were not less academically qualified.

Colleges across the country have doubled down on trying to attract students as enrollment numbers decline. Direct admission has proven to be an effective method of appealing to students who hadn’t already been planning to attend college. But the students who start applications without hitting the “send” button, the “non-submitters,” largely fall into a different category. They are presumably already interested in college.

So, why aren’t they completing applications?

Identifying ‘Non-Submitters’

During World War II, the U.S. military noticed that certain parts of the airplanes that returned from battle had more bullet holes than others. As a result, leaders decided to reinforce those areas, expecting that would help the planes better withstand enemy fire.

But this strategy had a fundamental error. It’s one relevant to past research about barriers preventing students from enrolling in college, said Taylor Odle, an assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-author of the “non-submitters” study.

The error, known as survival bias, directs focus on those entities that passed a selection process but overlooks others that didn’t make it through. The military focused on holes in the planes that survived enemy fire. But really, leaders should have considered the holes in the planes that did not make it home.

Likewise, higher education institutions have tried various strategies to boost student enrollment but haven’t stepped back to ask, “Who is not completing applications?” Odle said.

He and Preston Magouirk, chief data officer at the nonprofit DC College Access Program, took that step back. They outlined key factors that can predict non-submission, using data students put into their Common App profiles coupled with community indicators from the American Community Survey administered by the U.S. Census Bureau and school features from the Common Core of Data maintained by the U.S. Department of Education. (Magouirk was a senior manager of research and analytics at Common App while conducting the study.)

Overall, they found that 24 percent of students who started the Common App in 2018-19 did not complete it. The highest rates of non-submission were among American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students (as well as students who did not report their race or ethnicity on Common App), and the lowest rates were among white and Asian students. While students who identified as Black or African American and Latino represented a small fraction of all Common App users during the study year, both groups were overrepresented in the non-submitter population, with non-submission rates of 27 and 26 percent, respectively.

Submission rates also varied by community. The higher the unemployment rate in a ZIP code, the higher the likelihood of non-submission among students who lived there, the researchers found. Further, rates varied by school type. Students attending public high schools were more likely to not submit applications they’d started than students attending independent or private high schools. Students at Title I schools, which serve high numbers of low-income students, were more likely to not submit applications they’d started (28 percent) compared to students at non-Title I schools (22 percent). Compared to applicants, non-submitters were also less likely to report having a parent with a college degree.

Students who ultimately submitted the Common App visited the platform more frequently. The essay, in particular, appeared to be key in distinguishing between students who finished and didn’t finish their applications. Out of the students who eventually applied, 94 percent wrote at least 100 characters for their essay; whereas just 43 percent of students who did not write at least that much ended up applying.

What is most distinct about these findings, the researchers said, are the academic similarities between submitters and non-submitters.

“It would be so easy for people to just say, ‘well, they're probably not college material,’” Odle said, referring to non-submitters. This study shows otherwise. Students who submitted and students who did not submit applications had very similar GPAs and SAT/ACT scores.

Of course, there are other ways to apply to college beyond the Common App. While the platform connects students with more than 1,000 four-year colleges and universities, its data alone does not provide a comprehensive look at all pathways to higher ed.

Separate from the research by Odle and Magouirk, Common App conducted an internal analysis using National Student Clearinghouse records to track what happened to non-submitters beyond its own platform, said Mark Freeman, vice president of data analytics and research at Common App. The analysis found that the average Common App non-submitter is still likely to enroll in college after high school — but using another platform, such as applying directly to an institution.

This underscores the fact that people who access the Common App at all have a high baseline enrollment rate. For the 2017-18 academic season, for example, 71 percent of Common App users who did not submit an application through the platform still attended college within the next academic year, according to the analysis. More than half (56 percent) attended an institution that does not accept the Common App, but some students attended institutions that do (14.5 percent).

While this analysis looked at the year prior to Odle and Magouirk’s study, the results should look very similar, Freeman said.

However, Common App non-submission still seems to be related to college-going outcomes, Odle said. After all, the enrollment rate of students who completed the Common App — 88.4 percent — was higher than the enrollment rate of students who started but never finished it — 71 percent.

Counseling Students to Submit Applications

Dorma Lozada, a senior at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, recalls going through the college application process herself a few years ago. “I understood the language of the applications,” she said, which she attributed to her mother’s experience attending college in Puerto Rico. When filling out financial aid forms, her mother had the needed documents prepared, for example.

Lozada, 21, now assists students preparing for college at her high school alma mater, the Facing History School several blocks away from John Jay. Her work is supported through the same program that Olasunkanmi participates in, which trains college students to provide individualized support to high school seniors.

The high school students Lozada works with often do not receive the same insight from their parents that she did from her mother, she said. And many of her students’ parents do not speak English. She translates what she can, but it’s a challenge to alleviate families’ uncertainty about college, and specifically fears about affordability.

While Odle and Magouirk’s study focused on predictors of non-submission rather than strategies to support application completion, its findings point to possible solutions. Because submitters typically came to the Common App platform more times and completed the essay portion, for example, maybe more involved and sustained college counseling could help more students finish their applications.

The work that Olasunkanmi and Lozada do is an example of that counseling, which varies in quality and quantity across the country and in individual school districts. While the ratio of students to school counselors in the U.S. has narrowed over time, it remains well above what the American School Counselor Association recommends. These counselors assist with postsecondary planning but also boosting academic achievement and interpersonal skills. ASCA recommends a ratio of 250 students for every one school counselor. During the 2021-2022 school year, the latest year for which data is available, the nationwide average was 408-to-1.

High school seniors in 21 states shared how a lack of counseling affected their college application process in surveys conducted by the national nonprofit YouthTruth.

“I am almost done with my senior year and not once been talked to or notified about end of year requirements for graduation let alone college,” a male student reported. “Because of this I have decided that college is out of the picture and that I guess I'm just not good enough.”

Others reported not knowing about application deadlines, and when they learned of them late in the application season, they assumed college was just off the table, said Jen de Forest, director of organizational learning and communications at YouthTruth.

“There were a lot of kids, particularly Latinx kids, who described not having social capital in the process, unless they had a sibling to guide them through,” de Forest said. “If they had a sibling, the sibling was a really crucial bridge.”

Olasunkanmi has found this to be the case with her students in New York, too.

While her older siblings did not go through the college application process in the U.S., they attended and completed college, so she had that example set for her. For her students at Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School, many lack personal connections who chose the college pathway themselves. While these students may want to attend college and eagerly begin applications, they do not always follow through as they commonly see siblings and peers going straight to the workforce.

“Sometimes we have students that are very enthusiastic at the beginning of the application,” Olasunkanmi said, “but by the end, they're not.”

Like Lozada has seen, Olasunkanmi said this decreased buy-in from students is often contingent on the support they receive — or don’t receive — outside of the Bridge Coach program. Olasunkanmi knows from her own experience that a lack of parental input is not always an intentional choice. Some students’ parents are not familiar with the U.S. college admissions process, while others are busy juggling work or other responsibilities.

Setting Different Expectations

Yet Olasunkanmi’s parents did expect her to attend college. “African parents, they don't play with education,” she said. That meant her own college aspirations aligned with her family’s expectations.

Across the country, however, large aspiration-expectation mismatches have been found. YouthTruth's most recent survey of over 25,000 high school seniors in the class of 2023 found that 74 percent aspired to go to college but only 66 percent expected to go to college.

Olasunkanmi thinks this mismatch is at least in part due to a lack of diverse representation on college campuses. Overall, white students are the largest racial demographic in the U.S. college population, regardless of whether the institution is public or private, or a two- or four- year school (although public two-year institutions comparably have more minority students). Meanwhile, Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School is composed of mostly Black students (81 percent), with 14 percent Latino and 3 percent white students.

Career expectations likely also contribute to the mismatch. In the Common App study, submission rates varied widely by students’ reported educational plans, with higher rates of non-submission found for those who aspired to attain an associate degree compared to higher degree levels. The non-submission rate essentially doubled for students who never selected any degree goals.

Rates also varied based on students’ intended career field, with students who reported aspiring to work in occupations that generally require advanced levels of education (engineers, policymakers, physicians, etc.) having high application submission rates, while students who reported aspiring to occupations that don’t typically require a postsecondary credential (homemaker, farmer, etc.) had low application submission rates.

While college may not be a match for everyone’s career goals, ruling out college as an option because of expected job plans at such a young age is limiting, given that research shows those aspirations often change over time, Odle cautioned.

This was true for both Olasunkanmi and Lozada. After graduating high school, Olasunkanmi started at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, before transferring to NYU. She thought she wanted to be a nurse before she had the chance to work closely with a counselor, who spoke with her about the multitude of career options there are in health care. Now, she plans to work as a health care manager in a hospital or medical center. Lozada, who is majoring in political science and minoring in economics, initially thought she’d be a lawyer, but she is now set on becoming an elected official.

Cost is easily the biggest barrier to enrollment for both the never-enrolled and the previously enrolled, according to the latest Gallup and Lumina Foundation State of Higher Education report for 2023. YouthTruth reports seeing students become more concerned about the return on investment for a college education.

Transparency in what students can expect from the college experience, particularly overall cost, is key to helping them feel more confident to enroll, according to Bryce McKibben, senior director of policy and advocacy at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University. “It is so opaque,” McKibben said of the college price tag. “You don't necessarily know how much it's going to [cost] even in the next year, let alone over the length of your degree. As a result, it's very easy to make the conclusion that it may not be possible or that you're going to end up in loads of debt.”

The Hope Center regularly conducts surveys assessing students’ basic needs. The latest 2020 results from more than 195,000 students showed rates of basic needs insecurity increased among the general population, and intention to enroll in college dropped.

“We don't necessarily have data on the level of which those folks who never entered may have struggled with those challenges,” McKibben said, “but the fact that there are three-in-five students experiencing basic needs insecurity obviously presents huge warning signs of folks who are sort of at the margin.”

Odle and Magouirk hope that their research leads to changes that help more students successfully complete college applications. As for how the Common App plans to build on this work, Freeman said the organization will conduct a survey of non-submitters.

As Olasunkanmi and Lozada both begin their senior year of college, they’re thinking about how they can leverage their knowledge to beat back inequity in who makes it to college, and who succeeds beyond higher education, too.

Their advocacy work has already begun, one high school senior at a time.

“At the end of the year, they turn around and they're like, ‘thank you so much for helping me,’” Lozada said. “‘If it weren't for you, I would have not been able to complete these applications.’”

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