Ithaca College’s acceptance rate has reached its highest percentage in a decade for the 2019–20 academic year.
The number of freshman applicants for Fall 2019 was 14,192, according to the 2019–20 Facts in Brief released by the college Oct. 1. From this pool, 10,326 applicants — or 72.8% — were accepted to the college. This is the highest percentage the college has accepted since Fall 2009. In Fall 2009, 12,752 incoming freshmen applied to the college, and 9,471 applicants — or 74.3% — were admitted, according to the 2009–10 Facts in Brief.
In the 10 years that have passed between the peaks, the college’s average acceptance rate was 67.7%. In this time frame, there have been significant fluctuations. The lowest acceptance rate was 59.1% in Fall 2014.
Nationally, private institutions accepted an average 63.5% of first-time freshmen in Fall 2016, according to the most recent State of College Admission report from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. Although there are no set guidelines for the selectivity of a college or university, the report states that the most selective four-year colleges accept less than half of all applicants. Approximately two-thirds of first-time freshmen were enrolled at institutions with acceptance rates between 50–85%.
Although Fall 2019’s acceptance rate is similar to Fall 2009’s acceptance rate, the yield rate — or the percentage of applicants who were admitted to the college and decided to enroll — is lower. The Fall 2019 yield rate is 14.6%. Out of the 10,326 applicants admitted, 1,506 students enrolled. In Fall 2009, the yield rate was 21.4%. Out of the 9,471 applicants admitted, 2,027 students enrolled. In Fall 2009, this yield rate exceeded the college’s target enrollment by over 20%. The over-enrollment led to crowded facilities, classrooms and dorms on campus.
The Fall 2019 yield rate is the lowest since 2014, which was 14.5%. The college saw 18,207 applications in Fall 2014. Out of the 10,763 applicants admitted, 1,560 students enrolled.
Approximately 90% of the college’s revenue is dependent on student fees. Concerns have been raised about the sustainability of the college’s budget model, especially in light of missed target enrollment for the 2019–20 academic year. Last year, the college announced budget cuts due to the projected lower enrollment. However, at the All-College Gathering, President Shirley M. Collado said the college has a higher operating margin this year compared to last year.
Jackie Bichsel, director of research at the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR), said colleges that are not traditionally selective may have to increase their acceptance rates in order to meet their budgetary goals.
“Colleges are going to have to enroll more students, especially if they’re not an elite college, if they want to maintain their enrollment, if they want to maintain a certain amount of revenue,” Bichsel said.
Laurie Koehler, vice president for marketing and enrollment strategy, said she does not think acceptance rates are the main indicators of an institution’s success.
“It’s something that we have to pay attention to, and it is hopefully not the thing that defines us,” Koehler said.
Koehler said national yield rates have been declining approximately a percentage point every year since around the economic recession in 2008. The college has followed an overall similar trend, with the exception of slight increases in 2009, 2015 and 2017.
Koehler said the college’s higher acceptance rate this year may be attributed to the college’s attempts to recruit top students. Koehler said top students are harder to yield because they tend to be accepted into more colleges and universities, so they have more choices of which institution to attend.
“We are starting to feel the effects that other schools are also feeling in our region,” Koehler said. “Other schools like us have the demographic changes of the shrinking high school graduate population in the Northeast, which is where we draw a lot of our students. So that makes it challenging.”
The number of high school students graduating in the Northeast is projected to decrease over the next 10 years, according to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education.
La Jerne Cornish, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said that because the college is a regional institution and the pool of traditional college students in the Northeast continues to decrease, it is not a surprise that the college’s acceptance rate has increased.
“It is important to note that regardless of our acceptance rate, it is my firm belief that every student admitted to Ithaca College was selected because of their ability to meet with success at Ithaca College,” she said via email.
Koehler said her goal is to take a strategic approach to building an applicant pool that is composed of individuals who are a good fit for the college. She said this includes expanding the college’s reach beyond the Northeast. For the Class of 2023, 45.4% of freshmen are New York state residents, according to the 2019–20 Facts in Brief.
Bichsel said that with the changes in the higher education landscape, it is not beneficial to look to past enrollment rates to make enrollment predictions.
“You really have to make the prediction in conjunction with the number of high school graduates that are projected to attend school in the future,” she said.
Koehler said she thinks the college’s retention rates are more indicative of success rather than acceptance rates. The college’s third–semester retention rate increased two percentage points from 85% in Fall 2018 to 87% in Fall 2019. The national average retention rate at a private, nonprofit institution is 81%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
“We didn’t think it was going to be up as much as it was,” Koehler said. “And now our goal is to try to understand what we can about why that happened. It’s a fantastic place to be. It’s still not where I think we would like to be. I think we’d like to be closer to 90% on that front.”
Cornish said the college’s third–semester retention rate signifies a positive freshman year experience.
Koehler also said the fifth–semester retention rate slightly increased. For Fall 2019, this rate was 77.3%, and in Fall 2018, the rate was 77.1%.
“I think we’re still losing too many students who come for two years and don’t come back for their third year,” she said. “I’m not satisfied with that 77.3%. I don’t think that’s where we need to be. And so this is the part of looking holistically at what happens with the student experience, not just who you get in the door.”
Koehler said the first-to-second-year retention rate of African American students in Fall 2019 was 91.4%. For Fall 2019, there are 341 undergraduate black or African American students, 97 of whom are freshmen. There are 545 undergraduate Hispanic/Latino students, 149 of whom are freshmen. There are 240 undergraduate Asian students, 60 of whom are freshmen.
Cornish said these numbers reflect the increase of ALANA students nationally. From 2000 to 2017, college enrollment rates increased from 31% to 36% for black students, 22% to 36% for Hispanic students and 56% to 65% for Asian students, according to NCES.
She also said that increasing the diversity of faculty and staff can help with the recruitment and retention of students of color. In Fall 2018, 12.6% of faculty and staff identified as ALANA, according to the most recent data from the Office of Analytics and Institutional Research. This percentage has increased from previous years.
Koehler said that because ALANA students are a smaller proportion of the overall student body, the percentages will fluctuate more, but she is satisfied with this rate. She said she hopes to hold focus groups with students who are minorities in the student body to get a better sense of the student experience from this viewpoint. She also said the third–semester retention rate for first-generation students was lower than the overall retention rate, so she will be looking into that as well.
“At the end of the day, I can look at all the data, but what students are experiencing, what their perceptions are, that’s also reality,” she said.
She also said she thinks the college can improve its six-year graduation rate. Cornish said she would like to see the college’s four-year and five-year graduation rates increase as well. The freshman cohort that entered in Fall 2013 had a six-year graduation rate of 74.5%, meaning that one-quarter of students who start at the college do not graduate in six years.
“We’re better than that,” Koehler said. “We have committed, passionate faculty. We have staff who care deeply. We have incredible programs. We have a great location. And we have really smart, interesting students. And, somehow, we’re not putting it all together.”