Trends That Are Reshaping Colleges and Universities and the Application Process Itself


What Parents and Students Should Know Today

Catlin Gabel’s college counselors, Blythe Butler and Bill Ouellette, shared their perspectives on some of the most pressing issues in the college admission landscape during this time of change during a recent virtual event with parents and guardians. Many of these trends, according to Blythe and Bill, were gaining momentum prior to the pandemic, but they quickly gained ground as higher education has had to adapt to current circumstances in their approach to the college search process.

Blythe and Bill are the co-directors of Catlin Gabel’s college counseling program. Their perspectives are grounded in their years of experience working with high school students and alumni, interacting in various settings with college admission professionals, and reviewing industry trends and events.

The Definition of “Achievement” Has Become Broader and More Inclusive

The enrollment lens is not as limited as it was when parents and guardians were applying. Admission counselors now look for a larger story of growth and development in each individual, rather than just at a student’s GPA or test scores. Elements that go into a decision include the curriculum taken, the skills learned, including writing, the trend of performance over time, and the school attended. An applicant’s achievement, then, is considered conventionally (grades, strength of curriculum and test scores) but also broadly. What constitutes achievement looks different from one student to another: the contribution they make caring for a younger sibling or working in a family business; the enthusiasm with which they pursue an interest; the impact they have on a community. Admission counselors love to meet students who are curious about their world and effective in their engagement with it.

Acceleration of the Test-Optional Movement

The test-optional movement dates back to 1969, but has recently gained significant traction, signaling an important shift in long-held assumptions. Research on standardized testing calls into question its value as a predictor of college success. More importantly, the barriers to access and equity that standardized tests create for many students warrant the critical attention they've gotten. This change is one example of a movement that was growing in popularity, but was accelerated by the pandemic and has likely now become a permanent feature of the process. When standardized test centers for the SAT and ACT across the country closed, colleges had to re-think what elements would be required from applicants. Most schools chose to make test scores an optional component; all public universities and most private colleges in Oregon are now permanently test-optional. A few, like the entire University of California system dropped the testing requirement entirely for the long-term.

Growth in Gap Year and Formation of Gap Year Programs

There’s now a steady interest from students and families and acceptance from universities for students to take advantage of a gap year so that they can explore a personal challenge, find a job to raise funds for their education, or learn new skills. Typically, 3-4 Catlin Gabel students take a gap year, though there were significantly more gap year experiences among the class of 2020 due to the pandemic. Some universities are also creating their own gap programs, which offer intentional service or language opportunities, some for a full-year, others for a semester. Feedback from alumni who have taken part in these experiences is positive, and they regularly recommend it.

International Options Beyond Semester Abroad

At Catlin Gabel, students often show independent judgment in their college options, their picks taking them both near and far. Of the past five graduating classes, approximately 15 students chose to attend college outside of the United States. Their destinations include Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, the Middle East, and China. Their reasons are varied and can include potentially lower tuition fees, more specific programming, or an accelerated timeline to graduation. With increasing attention on international colleges and universities that offer English-language programs, students may choose to look beyond our borders for the educational and personal opportunities they can find globally.

Practical Experiences Are Available at Liberal Arts Colleges

There are more pathways available now to students who are searching for experiential learning experiences beyond just those offered in pre-professional programs, such as business and engineering, which are becoming increasingly competitive. In recent years, we’ve seen more liberal arts colleges broaden their academic offerings and target their programming to orient their students to future careers. These can include co-op programs that allow students to take time off to work in their intended field, winter and summer internships, and expanded career guidance.

Cost Is Important: Look Beyond Published Rates

For many families, finances must be part of the search and decision-making process, especially when the average cost for a public school is currently $26,000 a year (tuition, fees, and room and board) and can be $54,000-75,000 a year for a private school. Over the last three years, up to 80% of Catlin Gabel seniors listed cost as one of the deciding factors in their final college choice, and up to 45% of our families applied for need-based financial aid. Having an open family dialogue about costs and plans for paying for higher education will help a student to consider all the different variables. Take advantage of any financial aid seminars available to you, including consulting with a financial advisor, and know that it is never too early to begin saving for college. At Catlin Gabel, parents and guardians can attend an event designed to help families as they fill out financial aid forms and another that discusses college costs and financial considerations. It’s also important to note that at colleges where an array of scholarships and financial aid packages are offered, the actual cost of attendance may be less than the published cost. The amount of aid may vary considerably, depending on a school’s resources, so keeping an open mind about the types of colleges that could be a good fit will likely yield the most opportunities for financial aid. The Net Price Calculator, available on every school’s website, can help estimate the aid that a family might qualify for.

The Past Is Not the Future

The pandemic has caused a shift in the way higher education is approaching the enrollment application process; many of these changes could become permanent. Families and students will need to continue to be flexible as environments change.