2024 College Admissions Trends and Predictions

In 2023, our team continued to prioritize post-pandemic travel, visiting campuses all throughout the US, Europe, Canada and the UK, deepening our relationships and knowledge, and taking the temperature of the higher education world during what continues to be an intensely disruptive time in college admissions, and on college and university campuses.  We have loved our work with our students in the class of 2024, 231 students from over 20 states and 14 nations with whom we’ve had the honor of sharing a fulfilling journey of self-discovery.  Even as attention invariably turns to where students are admitted and ultimately enroll, we only become more committed to our intentional, student-centered approach, remaining focused on finding outcomes that meet ever-changing and highly individualized student needs in a climate of rapid change.  We’ve been especially gratified to have the privilege of guiding some of these seniors for a second time, after guiding them in their independent school placement process not long ago.  Our mission is steadfastly focused on our students, and on a healthy process built on growth and self-discovery rather than merely on “the game” of admissions; that focus has never been more important than it is now!

In reviewing some of the pre-eminent trends of 2023, and in predicting some of what we are likely to see in higher education and in admissions in 2024, we hope to offer insight and perspective to help you remain on your own student-centered mission in the year ahead!

2023 College Admissions Trends

  1. Even in the current, widely test-optional admissions landscape, testing continues to occupy a lot of real estate in each student’s mind as they consider and plan their application process.  The digital SAT arrived internationally, and launches in the US this March.  Early indications are that the digital test has launched smoothly, and may even prove preferable to the prior version for many students.  While many colleges remained test-optional for the time being or even committed to remaining so for the future, there continues to be widespread debate and uncertainty about how to approach testing, as a few colleges and universities begin to revert back to requiring them.  Advising students on this aspect of their journey is currently a highly individualized process.
  2. The Supreme Court decision banning the use of race as a criterion in admissions instantly led to colleges and universities finding other ways for students to share their stories of identity and community.  Many colleges on the Common Application added supplemental questions inviting students to share information in essays or even brief videos about the communities in which they grew up, or about any aspect of their identity they wished to share that might not otherwise have been touched on in their application.  These questions are widely prevalent already.  Students of color have had a new set of questions to contend with, often weighing the best ways to share authentically important stories without feeling they are accepting an invitation to check an invisible box by highlighting race.  Public scrutiny on other prioritized groups in admissions has also led many colleges to consider discontinuing practices advantaging children of alumni, or “legacy admissions.”
  3. There are fewer high school age students applying to college, but selective colleges continue to become more competitive through increasingly effective marketing, the increased ease of applying, the perception that test-optional practices are making the most selective schools more accessible, and the growing cultural perception that college is about procuring a brand as much or more than it is an experience focused on building skills.
  4. Even more Early Decision Applications, Again.  There is lively debate about the appropriateness and ethical implications of binding early admission programs, but their use is widespread and many colleges continue to fill half or even more of their incoming class through ED programs, often centering institutional priorities including many recruited athletes.  We have been privileged to work with student-athletes in, among other sports, lacrosse, football, baseball, track, golf, sailing, skiing, swimming, soccer, and rowing who have found best-fit colleges through EDI and EDII rounds. Consideration of possible Early Decision options is an element of many students’ deliberations.

2024 Predictions – More disruption lies ahead, requiring a “doubling down” on centering student growth

  1. There will be continued debate and public discussion about higher education’s place in our society, yet the most selective schools will continue to become more competitive.  In recent weeks, we’ve seen two Ivy League presidents forced to resign on the heels of congressional testimony about antisemitism on campus following protests about the Israel/Hamas war being waged in Gaza.  Public confidence in universities, and even in their perceived value, is eroding rather than increasing, and many colleges will find themselves needing to be nimble and creative to survive the political and cultural tumult that will impact them in these next few years.  At the same time, the factors listed in Point 3 above will continue to elevate the colleges and universities with the greatest brand recognition in 2024 and for the foreseeable future.  The gaps between the “haves and have-nots” among colleges and universities will continue to widen in this climate, and the politicization of higher education will only become more stark as the 2024 election amplifies existing discord and unrest.
  2. AI will impact applying, and will impact university admissions practices, in a variety of ways in 2024.  It’s already begun. Asking the right search questions can lead to effective support as students research their college lists, and as they seek information about schools and about the process.  Students can also gain worthwhile insights into approaching some essay topics, though they face a danger that relying too much on AI for idea generation will produce writing that any student could have done rather than writing that is personal.  Colleges are considering and already utilizing many approaches to AI, from evaluating essays for authenticity, to various stages of application review, and the resulting changes to what it feels like to apply to college, and to work in admissions, will come fast. We will be reminding our students that, at the heart of this process, their work must be deeply personal.  AI may know everything that there is to know about all of human history, but it still can’t know students like they know themselves. The changes coming from AI will be as real and as big as everyone says they will, and some of those changes will be beneficial to students and admissions officers, while some will invariably depersonalize and cloud the process.  More on how we are responding to AI below!
  3. The Supreme Court’s decision to ban the use of race as a selection criterion in admissions will continue to have widespread impact on admissions, though not in many of the ways rhetoric in the public square might have us all believe.  Students from groups already widely represented on college campuses will likely continue to pursue admissions in record numbers at the most selective colleges and universities, emboldened by the idea that the SCOTUS decision may make admissions more open to them, but they will still find the most competitive climate there’s ever been, as the numbers have never supported the idea that traditionally underrepresented groups are now overrepresented on these campuses.  Additionally, legacy admissions practices are being dropped at an increasing number of competitive colleges in the wake of the decision.  We expect that the number of schools dropping preference for children of alums will continue to rise in 2024.
  4. The Common Application adopted a platform to help some of its member institutions offer Direct Admissions to qualified students who hadn’t applied, bringing a practice that had been quietly growing to a bigger stage in 2023.  We expect that Direct Admissions will become more common at schools outside the most selective circle, and that other innovative new ways to apply and be evaluated will proliferate in 2024 and beyond.
  5. We have also taken note of a quickly rising number of “pay-to-play” research opportunities for students to work with professors or professionals, often with opportunities to share credit for original work.  There is appropriate cynicism from college admissions officers about programs that give access to these kinds of opportunities only to families willing to pay significant sums of money.  We predict that the pressure students feel to differentiate themselves in the application process will continue to create a big market for pay-to-play research programs, but we will be advising students and families carefully to prioritize summer and out-of-school opportunities that fit naturally and authentically into their broader journey, and to not view any such opportunity as some kind of stamp of exceptional achievement in itself.

So, what are we doing at McMillan Education to meet the disruptive times and leverage our years of collective wisdom about admissions, and especially about kids?  

  • We have deepened our commitment to helping younger students center their process on their authentic interests and qualities through our Early College Program.  We guide ninth and tenth grade students to intentionally develop their academic and intellectual gifts, their self-knowledge, and the values, passions and interests that will, ultimately, inform the candidate they present to admission committees and the person they present to the world. When students are at their best and making the most of every opportunity to learn about themselves, others, and the world around them in meaningful and authentic ways, they naturally create their brightest possible future choices and their healthiest journey.
  • We’re starting research earlier with our sophomores and juniors with our W.I.S.E. Method to keep them a step ahead and ensure they are looking at the substantive differentiators among and between college choices beyond the superficial brand recognition, challenging them in a supportive manner to know themselves and to understand what specifically various colleges offer to excite them and to fulfill their potential growth.
  • We continue to challenge students and families to be open to looking at the incredible colleges and universities that may fall into their Target and Likely categories, since yesterday’s Target Schools are today’s Reach Schools. As a local example that encapsulates the national trend of competitive admissions, Northeastern University’s 5.6% admit rate for the class of 2027 was lower than Harvard University’s 5.9% just ten years prior.  We help our students to see that unhealthy acceleration of scarcity for what it is, and to recognize the array of great options available to them despite the intensity of the climate.  While so much of the messaging focuses on scarcity, we help them to see the abundance of excellent institutions currently full of the strongest student bodies they’ve ever housed.  Our W.I.S.E. Method has never been more important!
  • We are approaching AI from a number of different angles.  We are developing best practices for consultants to utilize the tools available for effective research, and for working with students on essay idea generation while carefully helping students to write essays that only they could write.  We are also regularly engaging with our admissions colleagues throughout 2024 to stay up to date on the ways in which colleges and universities are engaging with AI technology, and are making sure to attend a variety of educational and professional development opportunities on the topic through conferences and other programs.  We are determined to be early adapters and adopters, and to keep our students thoughtfully informed and engaged with AI.

This past summer, while all these developments signaled the need for so much new knowledge and strategy related to admissions, it’s no accident that our entire team put down what we were doing at the height of our summer work with seniors in order to read Never Enough by Jennifer Breheny Wallace, an instructive and practical guide to understanding the dangers of the toxic Achievement Culture that our children are living through in 2023-2024.  We were all moved by what we learned, especially about the power of mattering, highlighted in the book and also in our work.  We will always endeavor to be experts in every aspect of college admissions, but this was an important reminder to us all that what’s most important is to remain experts on our students, and to help them fit their college choice to them, rather than the other way around.  This is why we continue to find such joy in our work with our students, whatever disruptions and challenges the landscape may produce, and why we hold out great hope for a healthy 2024 for them, and for all of you.

About The Author

Peter Olrich, MBA