Research Roundup: Are Students Affected by Colleges’ Small Application Barriers?
Research Roundup: Are Students Affected by Colleges’ Small Application Barriers?Jonathan Smith, Michael Hurwitz, and Jessica Howell, The College Board
Attending college is both costly and time consuming, and represents one of the largest investments people make in their lives, so one would expect students to engage in a thoughtful and deliberate college choice process. However, there is a growing body of literature showing that students are not behaving optimally in the college application and enrollment processes. For example, Amanda Pallais, in Small Differences that Matter: Mistakes in Applying to College (2013), shows that when applying to college, students often rely on rules of thumb that result in too few college applications, and Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery, in The Missing One-Offs: The Hidden Supply of High-Achieving, Low-Income Students (2013), demonstrate that many high-achieving, low-income students fail to apply to or enroll in those colleges that have higher graduation rates and would likely be more affordable. Our new paper, Screening Mechanisms and Student Responses in the College Market, offers new evidence of students responding to relatively small changes in the college application process. Specifically, we investigate the prevalence of required college application essays and the magnitude of application fees, and show how each can have sizeable effects on applications and enrollment.
How often are application essays used by colleges for admission and how often do colleges increase their application fees? We answer these questions using data from the Annual Survey of Colleges on 885 four-year colleges for the entering cohorts of 2003–2011. In 2003, 49.8% of four-year colleges required an application essay, and that number increased to 56.8% by 2011 (even as some colleges dropped the essay requirement). Over the same time period, approximately 50% of colleges increased their application fees at least once. Among colleges that increased application fees, the average increase was 30%, which amounts to only about $10.
How do essays and application fees affect student behavior? To answer this question, we bring in student application and enrollment data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System for the same years. We examine the changes in application and enrollment rates at colleges that alter their admission processes (relative to trends at colleges that don’t change their admission processes). Methodologically speaking, colleges could be changing their processes in response to previous years’ dips or spikes, so we account for that by adjusting for a measure of popularity — previous years’ number of SAT® score sends. With this methodology, we find that requiring a college application essay decreases the number of applications received at that college by 6.5%. We also find that increasing the application fee by 10% corresponds to roughly a 1% decrease in applications.
What does this mean for students, colleges, and policymakers? Students (and those advising students) shouldn’t let these small changes in cost and procedure stand in the way of what they want. Colleges should carefully consider their admission policies and how they affect their applicant pools. Do they want fewer applicants who demonstrate that these hurdles are not going to stop them, or do they want more applicants so that they can discover a diamond in the rough? And policymakers need to recognize that these small procedural barriers are just a few examples of how students can get tripped up in the application process, and work to simplify the process or change the entire system. Regardless of which position one is in, one thing is clear: The college admission process matters.