Are the ‘Covid Delayers’ Returning? Unpacking the Common App Data

Going into the 2021-22 recruitment cycle, the biggest question facing colleges was whether the “Covid delayers” would return to school or be lost forever. According to data released in mid-December by Common App, we may have an early answer. It looks like they’re coming back … and providing a Covid bounce. But should lagging FAFSA completion curb our optimism about these application numbers? 

The Common App’s data revealed significant increases over both the sluggish start to 2020-21 and the more typical start to 2019-20. Through Dec. 16: 

  • 931,540 distinct applicants had applied to 853 returning members [colleges], an increase of 13 percent over 2019–20 (824,651).  
  • Application volume rose 18.6% from 2019–20 (3,422,635) to 2021–22 (4,058,187), following a slow start in 2020–21 (3,653,391). 

If the surge in applications carries over to enrollments, it’s impossible to overstate what good news this could be for colleges. It would mean institutions may have a bridge from emergency government funding to relative stability as well as breathing space to prepare for the slow, downward glide that is coming. 

The data does not count community colleges, as many have open enrollment policies and don’t rely on the same formal college applications. That’s important because, in the Covid downturn, community colleges were bludgeoned more than any other higher ed sector. We will have to wait and see how they fare enrollment-wise. But clearly a bump in four-year applicants — a signal that students are coming back — is a good sign.   

Lagging FAFSA 

While the number of Common Apps submitted looks promising, FAFSA completions are only up 1% over last year’s low numbers of FAFSA filers, according to the FAFSA tracker. The 1% represents about 11,000 more FAFSAs filed, or about 2.65 FAFSA’s per accredited school.  

This adds a good bit of caution to the optimism brought by the early Common App numbers. FAFSA and financial aid are the ultimate student services, helping them achieve their educational goals. Without a significant jump in FAFSA submissions, colleges and universities should be worried about whether these early applications are viable.  

That’s why it’s crucial for enrollment offices to communicate dynamically with these students with personalized messaging that drives value statements, answers applicant questions promptly and makes every interaction with them count. 

International Applications Way Up

The Common App data also revealed a major jump in applications from overseas students; international applications are up 40% over pre-pandemic 2019-2020. That’s big news because many international students pay significantly more than domestic scholars — especially at public schools. The increase in these applications provides a possible explanation for the gap between the overall application increases and lagging FAFSA completions given that only U.S.-based students file for Federal Student Aid.  

A significant number of schools build their budgets around attracting and retaining overseas students. When the pool of international students began to drain due to Covid and perceived antagonism from the former administration, the consequences were dramatic and sudden. If these new early numbers hold out, and international students do return, that alone will change the fortunes of dozens, perhaps hundreds of schools. 

The ‘No Surprise List’

According to the Common App data, long-term privilege and access gaps persist at universities across the country. This is no surprise. Even though applications are up across the board, the application pool still heavily favors wealthy and multi-generational college graduate families. 

It’s likewise no surprise that, according to the Common App data, elite or exclusive schools are benefiting the most from the uptick in applicants. Although it’s noteworthy that increases in applications to public schools outpaced the growth in private school applications by 13 percentage points — 28% (public) vs. 15% (private). Given that states have pulled back their funding levels for colleges over the past two decades, and especially since the pandemic, application growth tilting in the direction of public schools is also welcome news. 

Also, on the “no surprise list” is that significantly fewer students are submitting test scores with their applications … as “test optional” becomes the new normal. In fact, the lack of required test scores may be contributing significantly to the increase in applications. Whether the shift will result in more enrollees, or better classes, or better retention rates is too early to even speculate.  

But it’s long been suggested that dropping assessment requirements would spark applications, which is unquestionably good for schools. The downside is that it makes student search trickier. It’s never been more important for schools to have an iterative, data-driven approach to search 

Some Light and Promise

In an era when massive school closures have been incorrectly predicted, it’s encouraging and refreshing to see data showing some light and promise. If theoretical market dynamics were what caused people to doubt the health and power of colleges, actual market demand — up 18.6% in the middle of this pandemic — ought to say a great deal too.    

But it’s not entirely about being right or wrong. The good news: the doors to a higher education — and the better, more productive, more lucrative life they offer — remain open. The better news: it seems more and more students are asking to walk through them. 

By Christopher Harris, Ed.D., Senior Enrollment Strategist, Capture Higher Ed