Danger, Will Robinson! College Admissions Outlook (2020-2023) - Yes - 2023!

Here it is. Unapologetic honesty. Buckle your seatbelts, folks. If you have a young adult entering (or applying) to college over the next three years, you're in for a bumpy ride.

Right now, graduating high school seniors all over the country are understandably moping and woe-is-me'ing their way through online instruction - to say nothing of dealing with the cancellation of varsity sports, prom, graduation, and their social lives. "Ah!," they tell themselves, "but next year it'll be better! I'll be at college!"

No. It won't. No. They won't.

Most colleges and universities will not welcome students on campus until (at least) January 2021. This means these seniors, who have lost so much to celebrate in their last semester of high school, will also lose the "freshman experience" of their college careers. No Fall semester - which, let's agree - offers, by far, the most important and fun experiences and activities of the year. They'll miss the excitement of moving into the dorms, their first day of classes, athletic events, Rush Week, etc.

Critics will argue that college isn't just - or primarily - about all of these things - that the focus should be on academics. They will insist that learning will still happen. Of course it will. But at what cost to the student?

For next year's freshmen, the beginning of their college careers will look exactly like the end of their high school years. They will live at home, taking online classes, kicking the "can" of life down the road a few more months until college "really" begins.

And what will "college" look like at that point?

Here's what we know. Already struggling financially, colleges and universities will face unprecedented headwinds in the next couple of years. Grant money? Down. State funding? Ha! Faculty? If you thought they were cranky this year - just wait! Revenue from sports? Non-existent. Oh - and the bills are coming due....

Many institutions used the relative "boom" of the post-2008 recovery by raising (and subsequently spending) money to improve infrastructure, expand amenities, and establish new - and often expensive - programs. Most used rather successful capital campaigns to do so. Others dipped into their endowments. Admittedly, some have "rainy day" funds to weather the storm that's coming. Not many, though, have enough.

Here's what my clients are telling me. They are not going to pay out-of-state or private college tuition rates for online/distance education conducted by graduate students or adjunct faculty members. They are not going to pay "campus" and "laboratory" fees - much less "student athletic" fees. These fees are essential to run college campuses - as are room and board (which have rather exorbitant mark-ups and return on investment). Most colleges are going to see their revenue drop by 30 - 45%. Others will suffer worse.

Colleges know this and are scrambling. Some are asking (and will soon be begging) the students they have already accepted for the 2020-2021 academic year to consider taking a gap year. This way, these students can get the "full college experience" of their freshman year - and the colleges can get "payment in full" once these students arrive on campus.

Interestingly, many sophomores are also considering taking a gap year. They have already "lost" their freshman year - and don't want the same experience their second year. Why not stay at home, work hard, get an intership, save money, and go back to college when it's "really" college? Why not, indeed?

Some institutions remain tone deaf - demanding students pay out-of-state tuition, new "online" or "distance education" fees, and all other fees implicit, they argue, in the student's acceptance of admission to their college. "We're all in this together!" they intone.

But they aren't.

These students are not responsible for over-expansion, reduced state funding, the blight of the adjunct professorship, or bloated athletics budgets. They are not responsible for the pandemic. They want to go to "college" - to have the experience promised by the college's websites, brochures, YouTube channels, and campus "ambassadors." This doesn't seem like too much to ask.

But they are not going to get it. And colleges will still expect them to pay full rate.

So - many incoming freshmen are understandably balking. They are, indeed, taking gap years - or simply choosing to reapply next year.

And this is where the problem gets worse. Much worse.

Acceptance rates were already falling rather precipitously. This year, we expect to see most-selective schools to fall somewhere in the range of 3.4% - 7%. The next tier will come in between 7.1% and 15%. The second- and third-order effects of the nation's top schools consciously reducing their acceptance rates by 3% - 4% this year were already going to make the 2021-2022 admissions landscape even more difficult for this year's high school juniors.

Now, when you throw guaranteed gap-year deferrals into the mix - which colleges hope to be around 25-35% of this year's incoming class - you have a real mess. Take, as a hypothetical example, a current high school junior from Texas who hopes to apply to the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, which accepts fewer than 12% of its out of state applicants. If 25%-35% of this year's accepted freshmen choose to defer a year, this will essentially make out-of-state acceptance for 2021-2022 applicants even more difficult - perhaps to the point of 8% acceptance. That's Ivy+ level just a couple of years ago.

This Texas applicant, then, decides not to apply to UNC in favor of UT-Austin - which currently boasts less than a 14% acceptance rate for in-state applicants outside of the top 6% of their high school class. Of course, if our hypothetical applicant is applying to UNC, she is likely within that top 6% of her high school class - so she will take the UT slot she has already earned and been promised by state regulations. This will leave one fewer slot at UT. This, in turn, leaves another applicant who might have been admitted to slide into Texas A&M or Texas Tech - subsequently pushing other potential applicants down the proverbial food chain of higher education.

In other words, fewer of the nation's absolute best students will attend the Ivy+ and top-tier liberal arts colleges. They will take spots in the next "tier" - say at a Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Davidson, or a University of Florida. Students who otherwise would have attended these schools will, instead, pursue their degrees at a flagship public institution - pushing others to regional colleges or "compass" schools like University of South Carolina - Aiken.

Some of these applicants will, instead, choose to take a gap year, themselves - with significant implications for 2022-2023 applicants.

Critics will, again, argue that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a community or junior-college education. Of course. There never has been. And yet, most graduating seniors yearn for a four-year college experience. We can debate whether this should be the case - but it is.

The bottom line is that colleges - and the students applying to them - face very significant challenges over the next three years. These challenges will likely cascade, ebb, and flow. There is absolutely nothing prospective applicants can do about this. They can, however, prepare in a way that anticipates and mitigates these challenges.

Life is not fair - we know this. All we have to do is look around.

The college admissions landscape is going to get even less "fair" in the next few years.

Prepare for what's next.

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