College Admissions, Student Enrollment, Melt : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money What is "melt" and why are college admissions departments sweating over it this year?

The College Admissions 'Melt' Down

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:

It is fall, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness and also the beginning of the college year. And for kids, the big unknown when you apply to college is, will you get in? But colleges also have a question they are equally stressed out about, which is, will the students who say they're going to show up actually show up?

ANDY BORST: So we're talking about predicting the life choices of 18-year-olds.

HERSHIPS: Good luck.

(LAUGHTER)

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

The man casting some cross-generational shade is Dr. Andy Borst. He's director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

BORST: We have students who have said - tell us that for certain, they're coming to us, and then, you know, something happens. They break up with their boyfriend or girlfriend in prom, and then decisions change.

HERSHIPS: I mean, prom can be super tough, so...

MA: (Laughter).

HERSHIPS: I get it. We were all there. Students say they're coming, that they're going to take a dorm room and pay their tuition bill, and that prom thing happens. So even though they have put down a deposit, some students, as many as 20- or even 30%, just don't show up. It's called melt. Over the summer, something mysterious happens, and students just melt away.

I'm Sally Herships in for Stacey Vanek Smith.

MA: And I'm Adrian Ma. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. The higher ed industry in the U.S. is worth half a trillion dollars. But how do you know how many teachers to hire, how many new mattresses to order for dorms or soda for the dining hall if you don't know how many students are actually going to show up?

HERSHIPS: Today on the show, the challenges of predicting melt and for schools, how even before the pandemic, it was getting harder.

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HERSHIPS: If you work in higher ed, there's this one question everyone is constantly asking all summer. How many students are we going to get?

BORST: I'll see folks walking around campus. And they never say, Hi, Andy. How's your day going? The first question is always, what's the numbers?

MA: Yeah. I mean, at any school, they try to use historical models to predict future melt - always tough. But when you introduced a global pandemic, that really throws a wrench in the works. Andy says that's what he figured was happening when they looked at the numbers.

BORST: And when we would look at our projection models, they were way over where we thought that we would be.

HERSHIPS: They kept waiting for melt to happen, and one way a lot of schools try to figure it out is by looking at deposits. To claim a spot, students put money down. At the University of Illinois, it's 150 bucks. You can put that money towards your tuition or fees. And it is non-refundable, but students still melt. They still walk away. And, in fact, Andy says they were so ready for melt to happen that they had a plan in place for next year. If too many students melted, they would increase the amount so students would have more skin in the game.

MA: Exactly, but that is not what happened. Instead, this year, the University of Illinois has about 8,300 students, which is hundreds more than they expected. That means the school has to figure out new schedules, assign more advisers and find beds for hundreds of extra students.

HERSHIPS: Yeah. Actually, the school had to put some of the students up in lounges. Melt is really hard to figure out. Anywhere from 10- to 40% of students melt. Low- and moderate-income students and students headed for community colleges are at the high end of that range - up to 40%. But all kinds of schools struggle to calculate melt from state schools to private schools, even Ivys like Harvard.

JON MARCUS: It used to be that once the deposit came out on May 1, you could - you're the admissions director. You could sit down in your big leather chair and take a nice deep breath because you know you had that kid locked down. That's not true anymore.

MA: Jon Marcus covers higher education for the Hechinger Report. He says college enrollment has been dropping for years. Fewer students are applying. Some schools have even had to close their doors, so figuring out melt has become really critical.

HERSHIPS: But on the flip side, if you have too many students show up, that can be a problem too. It's not like when an airline overbooks the flight, and then someone at the boarding gate is trying to offer $200 vouchers for taking the 10 o'clock flight because we all know you will get stuck in Des Moines or somewhere. Schools could offer more classes online, like on Zoom, but it would take a really long time for a school to, say, build a new dorm or a dining hall to handle overflow. Duke Law School had so many students this year it offered some students $5,000 scholarships to defer.

MA: Calculating melt has been getting harder for years for a number of reasons, and this problem started way back before the pandemic. Reason No. 1 - more students are willing to walk away from deposits.

MARCUS: Students are now - and this is a very recent trend - putting down deposits at more than one university.

HERSHIPS: Yeah. It used to be a deposit was like a promise ring, maybe not a full-on engagement ring. But it definitely meant something like, hey, University X, I'm serious about you. But what does the school do now with students who is giving out multiple promise rings?

MA: (Laughter) So the next reason calculating melt has gotten tougher is that colleges tried to make the application process easier, and that's had some unintended consequences. So take the common application, which is accepted by about 900 schools. That means students don't have to stay up all night crafting the perfect essay for each individual school, and they can just kind of send the same one over and over.

MARCUS: Some suburban high schools and private schools are encouraging their students to apply - and I'm not exaggerating here - to 20 colleges or 30 colleges, so it's harder for the admissions office to know whether that applicant is really serious or if he or she is just casting a really wide net.

HERSHIPS: If kids have taken the SAT, schools can buy their names. The schools get charged 50 cents a name by the College Board, which oversees the test. And what the schools get is the name and the address of a kid who went to the trouble to take the college entrance exam, which is a good sign of a prospective applicant, someone it would make sense to mail some shiny catalogs or postcards or other marketing materials to.

MA: I mean, Jon says one study found a typical public university is buying about 64,000 names per year to market to to recruit these high school kids, try to get them to apply. But that information is getting harder to buy.

MARCUS: So there's a big problem with that that's developed over the last few years that, I think, is really interesting and kind of admirable, which is that this generation of students, which has been marketed to from the time that they've been born - they're increasingly - they have the choice of opting out of allowing their names to be sold. And increasingly, they're opting out of this.

HERSHIPS: There's so many things I wish I could opt out of (laughter). And finally, one other change that happened around the same time as COVID has made figuring out how many students to admit even more complicated for schools. The Justice Department decided that colleges were being restrained from competition, so they changed the rules, and colleges are now allowed to try to recruit each other's students.

MARCUS: So now, even after May 1, the student isn't really locked down. A college can go after a student, even after the student has enrolled in another college, offer them more financial aid, offer them other inducements. Up until last year, that was not allowed. Now it is, so that's thrown all this other kind of drama into the process.

HERSHIPS: Oh, my God, that's like being engaged to be married and then finding out your fiancee is, like, dating someone else, and you had no idea.

MARCUS: Exactly, cheating on you. These students are cheating on these colleges with other colleges.

HERSHIPS: Some people are fans of these changes, like Andy, the director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois.

BORST: I have two little boys. And so if you say, hey, do you mind if I reach out to your minor child without your permission and begin communicating directly with them? Are you OK with that?

HERSHIPS: His school wasn't, and so it has stopped buying names. Instead, he says, the University of Illinois is trying another way to reach 18-year-olds - on YouTube and TikTok and Instagram.

MA: And if that is not enough for the University of Illinois or other schools, there's a whole industry of enrollment management that has sprung up - private companies that universities hire to help them calculate who is going to show up. The industry is worth billions.

(LAUGHTER)

HERSHIPS: Wow. If I could go back to school, I know what I would major in.

MA: Enrollment management (laughter).

HERSHIPS: Yeah. This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Julia Ritchey with help from Isaac Rodrigues. The show is edited by Alex Goldmark and Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.

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