Picking a college? How about 10?

It’s a stressful time of year for Jiwon Bang. The Okemos High School senior has completed nine college applications so far, with deadlines for more looming in the coming weeks. “I’m definitely applying to four more,” she said, “and a few more if I have the time.”

It’s a stressful time of year for John Hille, too. He and his admissions staff at Albion College are wading through applications to attend the school next fall. Applications to Albion have almost tripled in the past decade, even though the number of high school graduates in Michigan is down. They’ll read every essay, look at every test score, make an acceptance decision and calculate a financial aid package. And then 86 percent of the accepted students will go to another college.

“It’s more work (in recent years to enroll) the same number of students,” Hille said.

Welcome to the new world of college admissions, where it’s common for high school seniors to apply to a half-dozen or more schools, all in the hopes of getting into that perfect college with a great financial aid package.

With deadlines for applying for admission for fall 2015 past for some colleges and approaching quickly for many others, high school seniors across the state are putting finishing touches are essays and bribing teachers with cookies to get that perfect recommendation letter. Most of those teens will apply to more colleges and universities than their parents - or even their older siblings - did.

College application fever

Deadlines are approaching, and most Michigan colleges and universities are getting more and more applications for enrollment, even though the number of high school seniors in the state is decreasing. That’s because students are applying to more schools than they used to, causing the admission rates at a lot of colleges and universities to plummet. The first chart below tracks admissions over the past decade at Michigan public schools, the second chart tracks admissions at private schools. Click on a school to see how it has done over the past decade.


Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Between 2003 and 2013, the number of high school graduates in Michigan dropped 2 percent, from roughly 100,000 to 98,000. Yet over that same decade, applications to Michigan four-year degree colleges and universities skyrocketed 49 percent.

Adrian College was buried under 4,675 applications in 2013 (a 260 percent increase since 2003), for a freshman class of 496. Applications to other private colleges also spiked: Kalamazoo College applications are up 47 percent; Hope College saw a 68 percent increase in applications; Calvin College, 107 percent.

The story is the same at most of Michigan’s public universities. Applications are up 49 percent at Grand Valley State University in the past decade; 43 percent at Central Michigan University; 80 percent (about 21,000 more applications) at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus.

This seachange – fewer students, but more applications – is a result of easier, electronic applications, and growing fears among high school seniors that they will have trouble getting into their favorite college.

The Common Application allows students to fill out an application once, and send it to any of the more than 500 colleges and universities across the nation. Some schools ask for supplemental information – a school-specific essay is typical, and can be completed on the same website – but many schools ask for nothing beyond the standard Common App. Once the Common App (with its essay) is completed, seniors can apply to multiple colleges with a few keystrokes.

Nine of Michigan’s private colleges accept the Common App. U-M Ann Arbor is the state’s only public university that accepts the Common App.

At U-M, applications shot up 25 percent the first year it accepted the Common App for the 2010-11 school year. The school, with dorms already bursting at the seams, accepted roughly the same number of students. With so many more students applying, the school’s admission rate plummeted from about 63 percent in 2004, to 33 percent in 2013. The downside: having to write more letters denying admission to smart kids. The upside: Lower acceptance rates mean more prestige for the university on “best colleges” lists, such as the popular U.S. News & World Report’s rankings.

It’s not just schools that accept the Common App that are experiencing big jumps in applications. Adrian’s 260 percent increase in the past decade occurred without the Common App; Oakland University applications are up 90 percent, and Michigan State University, 28 percent. While those schools don’t use the Common App, their applications are online.

A vicious cycle

All those college applications floating through the ether are lowering admission rates. High school seniors, petrified by the dropping rates, are applying to more and more schools to increase their chances of being accepted someplace. As they send more applications, the admission rates drop even lower, encouraging the next crop of seniors to apply to even more schools.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Bang, who is applying to U-M, MSU, and about a dozen out-of-state schools. “At the same time, I think colleges want those low admission rates.”

Students have to apply to a lot of colleges because, with so many students applying to the same schools, getting in is “a crap shoot,” Bang said. “I know a couple students who have graduated before me, they are so smart, and they were denied by a lot of the places they applied to.”

Bang applied to three schools because “the application process was so easy.” She’s applied or plans to apply to about a dozen more to increase her chances of having several schools to choose among when acceptance letters are sent in March, and also to see which schools offer the best financial aid package. “From a student’s perspective, we never really know what a college is looking for,” she said.

Hille, of Albion, sees the tidal wave of college applications from a different vantage point. As interim vice president for enrollment management, he sees a cost universities must bear to process the applications of students who are unlikely to enroll.

“We spend anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes for an initial review (of an application), and if there is any question, there could be a committee look at it, and that could be another 30-50 minutes,” Hille said. “Then, (for accepted students) we have to package them in the financial aid office, at 15 minutes to an hour per application.

“When you start talking about 3,000 to 4,000 applications, that’s a commitment of time, even though they have may have already ruled us out.”

Throwing darts

Hille said he believes the skyrocketing cost of college encourages students to send out more applications. “It’s like you or I going on the web and checking out the best price on a car at more than one dealership,” Hille said. “It’s tempting.” But a Chevy Tahoe is the same no matter where you buy it; all universities are different. In the end, Hille said, students (and their parents) typically chose the college that feels like the best fit, not necessarily the one with cheapest tuition.

“Usually by January or February, students have lowered their search to two or three schools,” Hille said. “Unfortunately, if they’ve applied to more schools, those schools still have to go through the process.”

In 2013, Albion received 4,430 applications, offered admission to 2,498, and 346 enrolled. Albion’s enrollment has actually dropped 29 percent in the past decade, despite handling 189 percent more applications.

While Albion may not be pleased about the increase in applications, many schools are, saysFrank Bernier, a college navigation advisor based in Lansing.

“They’re playing a statistical game,” Bernier said. “The more selective the school is, the more important it is to show a low level of acceptance. U.S. News & World Report make a big deal of that. And they are one of the key resources that the general public goes to. So they (colleges) are fanning that attitude.”

Bernier believes many high school seniors wouldn’t need to apply to as many colleges if they did their homework ahead of application season.

He recommends thinking about what kind of school you want to attend – big, small, public, private, near home or as far away as possible. Campus visits can help students tell whether a college is a good fit.

“Too many are throwing darts,” Bernier said. “Ideally, you wouldn’t need to apply to more than four or five colleges. Unfortunately, I have a real feel for the dilemma the parents are put into. They don’t have time to do the research.”

Changes in acceptance rates among Michigan schools

Most colleges across Michigan, both public and private, have seen a marked increase in applications, which has lowered acceptance rates. Table is sorted by 2013 acceptance rate.

Public schoolApplications, 2013Change from 2003Acceptance rate, 2003Acceptance rate, 2013
UM-Ann Arbor46,81380.4%53.2%33.3%
Central Michigan19,26242.8%70.4%63%
Eastern Michigan11,92933.3%74.2%64%
Michigan State31,47926.1%70.8%68.6%
Northern Michigan6,74351.2%84.3%73.1%
Ferris State10,718-12.0%73.5%75.9%
Wayne State11,52467.5%70.1%76.2%
Michigan Tech4,52052.9%91.8%76.6%
Saginaw Valley State6,05780.0%89.5%78.7%
Grand Valley State18,12249.2%73%82.6%
Western Michigan14,621-3.2%82.3%82.8%
Lake Superior State1,481-5.5%89%91.8%
Private schoolApplications, 2013Change from 2003Acceptance rate, 2003Acceptance rate, 2013
Andrews University2,551163.3%60.4%37.5%
Lawrence Technological University1,81928.4%76.3%43.7%
College for Creative Studies1,284170.9%74.3%48.6%
Olivet College1,995105.2%59.1%51.5%
Concordia University-Ann Arbor1,150254.9%74.4%53.7%
Adrian College4,675259.6%87.9%56.3%
Albion College4,430188.8%86.8%56.4%
Finlandia University872n/an/a58.8%
Madonna University1,08961.8%86%61.2%
University of Detroit Mercy3,67068.3%81.1%61.5%
Kettering University2,140-17.1%57.2%61.6%
Spring Arbor University2,698217.4%85.9%65%
Northwood University-Michigan1,447-18.5%83.8%65.4%
Kalamazoo College2,52857.7%70.3%66.9%
Siena Heights University1,42245.3%64.5%67.7%
Alma College2,69986.8%79%67.9%
Cornerstone University2,34982.8%75.7%68.1%
Calvin College4,003107.1%98.6%69.7%
Aquinas College2,789104.9%79.2%71.4%
Hope College4,16167.7%82.9%72.5%
Davenport University1,385n/an/a91.7%
Marygrove College916199.3%91.8%93.8%

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

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Linn Williams
Sun, 12/14/2014 - 12:28am
I found this information so valuable that I would like to pass it on to a number of potentially interested persons. However, I do not seem to be able to email it, even tho you appear to offer that option. Why? This has been a persistent problem for me, with your many excellent articles.
david zeman
Sun, 12/14/2014 - 10:18pm
Linn, Thanks for your kind words. I'm not sure why you're having trouble emailing this story. Let me look into it on Monday and we'll get back to you to clear this up. best, David Zeman Editor, Bridge
Nancy Derringer
Mon, 12/15/2014 - 9:24am
Linn: I just tried the email link and it worked for me. Can you give me some details about your browser/email program? It would help me troubleshoot. Thanks. Nancy Derringer Bridge magazine
Mon, 02/09/2015 - 10:05am
Thank you Ron French and Mike Wilkinson for bringing these statistics forward. We have been seeing this trend over the last few years and have a few comments for parents. Although students are applying to more schools, admissions is staying on track with the students they offer admission to and the number of kids that actually come to their school. I think that some students are worried about admission into a good college so they use as many darts as they can at the target, hoping that one or two will stick! I recommend that students stick to the rule of applying to 2 reach, 2-3 on-target, and 2 safety schools. But these schools must be schools that they are a good fit for, and that they have visited and are making their best effort in their applications. If a student is applying to 20 colleges how can their application be their best effort, after the first 5-6 kids lose their enthusiasm for writing essays and doing the best job on the application. We believe that working with students to find the best fit colleges takes the majority of the application stress away. We hear that that in some cases great students are not offered spots at the colleges that they think they are qualified for. That is why our business has continued to show a increase in the number of parents that want to get admissions right, the first time! Thanks again for posting this article. Tim Parros Parros College Planning LLC
victor lungu
Wed, 11/25/2015 - 5:47am
thank you for the data