Lesson Two: Understanding College Enrollment Priorities

This is the second of four posts deconstructing highly selective college admissions. Stay tuned for more great information!

Colleges and universities have varying priorities they emphasize when admitting students and building their class. Many of these can be found by looking at a college’s mission statement. For example, at the University of Michigan, the mission is “...to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge through art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.” In my time working in the admissions office, our recruiting plan involved actively recruiting and admitting students from across the entire state of Michigan, domestic non-residents and international students, and students who demonstrated strong leadership experience. Michigan calls themselves the “Leaders and Best” after all!


Below is a list of qualities that may be considered institutional priorities for enrollment (and you’ll note some compete with each other!):

  • International students

  • In-state students and out-of-state students

  • Legacy students and first-generation college students

  • Athletes

  • Full-pay students and low-income students

  • Students with special talents in the performing, fine and visual arts

  • Under-represented minority students

Institutional priorities can change over time and the University of Alabama is an example of an institution whose strategic plan in the early 2000s became focused on enrolling more highly competitive students from within Alabama and across the United States. Since the early 2000s, the University of Alabama’s enrollment of students outside the state has tripled.


Another significant shift in priorities occurred recently when George Washington University announced a change to their strategic enrollment plan in 2019 with efforts to decrease enrollment by 20 percent while emphasizing enrollment in the STEM fields.


It’s not reasonable that families have the time (or desire) to stay on top of these changes or understand how a college’s mission or strategic plan affects the admissions landscape. However, our job as educational consultants is to do this with each of our families, particularly as it relates to a student’s college list development. Nevertheless, as students research schools to decide where to apply, here are some things you may want to consider:

  • Researching the breakdown of in-state and out-of-state students at a public university. This information is usually available on a college's admission website.

  • Googling the mission of a university

  • Searching for recent articles about the newest freshman class at the university. This will provide information about what the college is prioritizing in their freshman class. For example, we can learn quite a bit about Oberlin’s freshman class here.

Doing your research now, as you build your college list, will help you better understand not only what a college is looking for but also what aspects of your identity or experiences that you want to highlight in the admissions process.


Information is power and the more you know about the colleges you want to apply to, the better you can highlight your own unique strengths within your application.




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