Will COVID-19 Make It Easier to Get Into College?

by Evan Thompson

Updated April 14, 2023 • 5 min read

Each year, about one-third of students who apply to college are not accepted.

Earning admission to the most prestigious colleges or universities is even more difficult; some have acceptance rates as low as 4%. But following a notable college enrollment decline because of COVID-19, will the chances of getting into college go up?

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment dropped 4.4% this fall. Overall, postsecondary enrollment is down 3.3% compared to the same time last year, though graduate enrollment is up 2.9%. These figures are based on reports from 76% of institutions in the U.S., as of October 22.

Enrollment Decline in 2020

Rate of decline in postsecondary education

The main reason for the decline is, of course, the coronavirus pandemic. Many incoming freshmen have reconsidered their college choices because of how the virus has changed the college experience. At the same time, many international students cannot enter the country due to visa restrictions. International students make up 5.5% of the country's higher education population.

Colleges and universities faced a similar issue near the end of the 2020-21 academic year. The coronavirus led students to defer their enrollment or take a gap year. In response, many institutions admitted more students than usual to meet tuition goals.

Six of the eight schools in the Ivy League, including Harvard and Yale, increased acceptance rates for the Class of 2024. Other schools extended application deadlines or dipped into their waitlists.

Top Five Lowest Acceptance Rates

National Average Acceptance Rate


(as of 2016)

But will that trend continue for the 2021-22 academic year? Not necessarily.

According to Debra Felix, an independent educational consultant and former director of admissions at Columbia University, acceptance rates are unlikely to increase at schools that admit 30% or fewer applicants. However, depending on the circumstances, schools with more standard acceptance rates — the average was 65.4% in 2016 — may accept more students than usual.

"I do not expect much to change at the colleges with the lowest admission rates," Felix said. "If an enrollment decline persists at the other schools, they might admit a larger freshman class in the next cycle."

According to a 2019 survey from the National Association of College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), a little less than half of four-year colleges used a waitlist in 2018. Only 20% of students on their waitlists were admitted.

The Waitlist

In 2018, 43% of four-year colleges had a waitlist.

Only 20% of students put on the waitlist were accepted.

Source: NACAC survey

Waitlist acceptance rates vary widely between colleges each year, Felix said. But even though some schools accept more students off the waitlist than others, Felix doubts the average rate will change moving forward, as they did earlier in the pandemic.

"I do not expect schools to have to dip into their waitlists like they did in the spring and summer of 2020," Felix said. "This year, I expect they might err on the 'high' side, perhaps admitting more students than they should and then encouraging them to take a gap year if they cannot accommodate everyone next September."

Public and private universities will face a similar pinch to meet enrollment goals for fall 2021, but some are not under as much pressure as others.

For example, Baker University in Kansas is not any better or worse off than it has been in previous years. The four-year, private liberal arts school primarily serves the greater Kansas City area, and enrollment hasn't changed by much. According to Jason Hannah, executive director of marketing, there's not much reason for Baker to increase acceptance rates.

"In our market, for our institution, there's not necessarily a large difference in what we anticipate for this coming year or next," Hannah said. "We have essentially the same pipeline with the same conversion rates that we've always had, and we anticipate the same process. We don't really have huge stockpiles of acceptance or students that we could just go to and accept all those and be totally fine that way."

Hannah said Baker also doesn't have an extensive waitlist. Even if it did, accepting more students off the waitlist to meet tuition goals is not how the school's business model works.

"We're not necessarily going to that list to just increase acceptance rates by default, to just have more students," Hannah said. "We're not like a Harvard, where Harvard has a huge waitlist, so they just dip into that. We've just never operated that way."

The chances of it being easier to get into college because of COVID-19 are still up in the air. Even enrollment experts like Steven Antonoff, an educational consultant and former dean of admissions at the University of Denver in Colorado, can't be sure what will happen in the future.

"Yes, maybe more will be taken from the waitlist, but schools are being careful to keep their eye on the increased number of students who have deferred and will seek admission next year," Antonoff said. "But this is all very speculative. I'm changing my opinion daily as I gather more information."

Portrait of Evan Thompson

Evan Thompson

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Header Image Credit: skynesher | Getty Images

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