Seven Game-Changing Admissions Developments of the Past Decade — and One Trend to Watch in 2020

RJ Nichol
Jan 7, 2020

What a difference a decade makes! On January 1st, 2010, many people were still lauding the possibility of a post-racial America, fewer than half of U.S. adults used social media and the mention of Aunt Becky from Full House triggered nothing but warm nostalgia. The field of college admissions has seen profound new challenges in recent years, and institutions across the country have adopted increasingly sophisticated technologies and practices to overcome these hurdles. Some innovations have been welcomed with near unanimity, others are more controversial and several look to dominate higher education headlines for years to come. 

1. The rise of Big Data in recruitment and admissions

Gone are the days of relying solely on purchased lists of prospective students, and instead institutions are collecting and buying information to identify students who will be the best fit for their institution using a number of data points. These types of best-fit strategies have the potential to better locate promising applicants, but also to increase the yield of accepted students

2. Increasing adoption of holistic admissions practices

One of the most hotly contested debates in admissions across the decade is that of holistic review. Research conducted by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities found a statistically significant correlation between the use of holistic review and increased campus diversity. While more than 90% of schools self-report holistic application review, a series of high profile legal cases have challenged the notion that factors like race and ethnicity can be considered when evaluating potential students. From 2013’s Fisher v. University of Texas to the still-ongoing Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, this is an issue that promises to shape conversations around college admissions well into 2020 and beyond. 

3. Changes to how standardized test scores factor into admissions

As other application components have gained new prominence, admissions departments have changed the way they look at standardized test scores. This represents another facet within the greater trend of using several data points to identify the students who will fit in best, rather than trying to rely on a one-size-fits-all indicator. 

4. Inclusivity focus and outreach

According to NACAC, the percentage of institutions that assigned race/ethnicity “considerable” or “moderate” influence almost doubled between 2015 and 2019. The past decade has seen an increase in outreach to students of color, in part due to philosophical reasons, but also because of shifting demographics. In addition to issues related to the holistic admissions legal controversies mentioned above, this emphasis on diversity has also created controversy in the forms this outreach takes. For example, researchers looked into the marketing materials used by institutions of higher ed and found that students of color were disproportionately represented in recruiting materials compared to actual student bodies — with some high profile incidents of photoshopping people of color into brochures to appear more diverse. 

5. Technology opens the door for more non-traditional materials in applications

Technological advances over the past ten years have disrupted every facet of American life, and admissions departments are no different. Art and design programs have benefitted from the ability to quickly and easily access prospective students’ work in a digital format. Additionally, barriers to face-to-face interviews have been lessened with increasingly reliable and ubiquitous video conferencing platforms. Schools like the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music found that by opening up their application process to more non-traditional materials, not only did applications increase, but decisions could be made more collaboratively than in the past. 

6. Digitization of admissions processes

The progression of college applications away from paper and toward digital has been a long but fruitful transition — and it achieved near universal adoption in the past decade. Going digital lessens costs associated with materials and storage, facilitates communication between individuals and departments and reduces information siloing. Looking forward, as the information counselors consider becomes more plentiful — and more nuanced — new systems will be needed to make the best and most efficient use of all of these data points. For example, San Francisco State University used Liaison’s UniCAS™ to overhaul an antiquated graduate enrollment system, and in the process saved over $40K per year on application processing costs. “It has pretty much transformed our admissions process,” says Noah Price, associate dean for the Division of Graduate Studies. “We’re basically 100% paperless, which is fantastic.”

7. The college recruitment boom

At the beginning of the decade — and for years prior — the average institution of higher education spent about 2% of its tuition revenue on recruitment. The proliferation of for-profit colleges and online programs changed this: online programs offered the ability to scale up faster while lessening institutions’ physical footprint needs. But the increased competition has led to a recruitment arms race that some think may inflate recruiting costs tenfold in the very near future. Fortunately, services like Liaison’s Enrollment Marketing Platform (EMP) exist to help institutions extend their marketing reach in smarter, more effective ways. According to Harvard University, “Using EMP is truly the difference between your institution exerting influence over the enrollment process or letting the process unfold without your guidance.”

One trend to look for in 2020: New collaborative strategies

It’s impossible to overstate the uncertain nature of the higher education landscape as we enter this new decade: Will “Free College” prevail politically? Will international applications continue to plummet? How will changing demographics related to age, race and socioeconomic status impact colleges and universities in the years to come? 

One thing that is for certain, however, is that we’re all in this together. With regard to the recent enrollment plight of business schools in the wake of decreased international applications, Robert Ruiz, managing director of BusinessCAS, and Shaun R. Carver, assistant dean of graduate programs at UC-San Diego’s Rady School of Management, have written extensively to float the idea of strategic alliances between competing schools in order to better educate the public about the value of an MBA and the role of such programs in the 21st century economy.

Will the 2020s be the Team of Rivals decade for higher education recruiting and admissions? Let us know any trends we missed, and what you’re looking forward to in the coming decade by finding us on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook!

RJ Nichol

You may also enjoy

Over the last three decades, Liaison has helped over 40,000 programs on more than 1,200 campuses more effectively manage admissions through its Centralized Application Service (CAS™) technology and complementary application processing and support services. The higher education technology leader supports its partner institutions’ total enrollment goals by pairing CAS with its Enrollment Marketing (EM) platform as well as the recently acquired TargetX (CRM) and advanced analytics software Othot.