Updated: April 6, 2015 at 6:14 p.m.
GW’s undergraduate admission rate has jumped 13 percentage points over the past two years, part of a strategy that administrators say will help the University cope with a series of damaging budget cuts.
The University accepted about 45 percent of all applicants for the incoming undergraduate class — the highest admission rate in at least a decade. That decision was made with hopes of more students choosing to attend GW, which would mean a slightly larger class size to boost revenue after two years of missed projections.
Before last year, GW’s acceptance rate had hovered at about 33 percent. Provost Steven Lerman said the shift came after graduate enrollment declined by about 1,200 students at the University, which relies on tuition dollars for about 75 percent of its revenue.
Experts say universities are turning to undergraduates to recover from a nationwide drop in graduate enrollment, but accepting more students comes at a cost to both selectivity and national rankings.
Lerman said he and other administrators planned to increase the size of the undergraduate class to make up for spots that graduate students would have originally taken. The admissions office plans to enroll between 2,500 and 2,550 undergraduate students, an increase of 150 to 200 students.
He said the University hopes to bring the number of students on campus closer to the D.C.-imposed enrollment cap, which limits full-time undergraduate and graduate enrollment to 16,553. GW currently has 9,226 full-time, undergraduate students.
“My expectation is we will start to move back up toward the cap and have to manage around that,” Lerman said.
He added that because of how reliant the University is on tuition revenue, budgeting “comes into play” when determining the size of a new class. In 2013, the University hired Laurie Koehler, its first senior associate provost for enrollment management – a position growing in popularity for schools looking to focus on how admissions factors into budgeting decisions.
“Tuition revenue is directly related to enrollment, so the revenue forecast for the whole University is triggered not entirely but very much by enrollment, both graduate and undergraduate,” Lerman said. “So they are linked.”
Lerman said in a February interview that GW will have to delay parts of its strategic plan after missing revenue targets for the second year in a row. Divisions across the University will face 5 percent budget cuts in the coming months.
He said last week that some faculty who had previously taught graduate students will shift to undergraduate courses, but he didn’t expect there to be large numbers of professors changing their coursework or increasing their course loads.
“By having so much fewer graduate students than we had at our peak and having so many more undergraduates, we still have the capacity in terms of classrooms and faculty to teach them,” Lerman said.
Koehler said the percentage of accepted students increased because the overall pool of applicants was “academically stronger” than in past years. The median SAT score increased by 10 points and the median high school GPA has increased by nearly 0.2 since 2009, when that figure was 3.57.
She said that as more students apply to a larger number of universities, GW will have to accept more applicants to hit target class sizes.
“As we continue to see our applicant and admitted student pools grow stronger, we will need to admit more students to enroll the same number,” Koehler said in an email.
Historically, roughly 30 percent of accepted students enroll at the University, a number that is commonly called the yield rate.
Anna Ivey, a former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, said admissions officers will sometimes lean in favor of accepting too many students to make sure classroom quotas are met and classes are at full capacity.
“Each seat in the class that goes unfilled is a huge revenue hit for the college,” she said in an email. “It’s like an airplane revenue model that way, so that’s why they’ll do whatever it takes to get people off the waitlist to fill spots, just like standby at the airport.”
GW is one of a few schools not accepting fewer students. Out of seven peer institutions for which data was available, only Boston and Emory universities also increased their acceptance rates.
Compared to those seven peers with available data, GW had the highest admissions rate for the Class of 2019 by 11 percentage points. Boston University came in second with 32 percent.
American University, which did not yet have data available for this year, accepted 46 percent of its applicants last year.
GW received 19,780 applications this year, an increase of more than 700 from last year. The number of applicants dropped significantly in 2014, a change administrators attributed to the University’s switch to only accepting the Common Application. Forty-three percent of applicants were accepted to the Class of 2018.
Ramin Sedehi, a former vice dean at the University of Pennsylvania and the head of Berkeley Research Group’s Higher Education Consulting practice, said universities facing enrollment issues are also increasing the percentage of applicants they accept to reach class size quotas.
He said that as long as a university still has significantly more applicants than slots, and those applicants maintain similar test scores and GPAs compared to past groups, the institution won’t take a hit in rankings.
“If you look at the very top schools – Harvard, Penn, Princeton – it’s not happening at that level because they have so many more applicants,” Sedehi said. “But if you look at universities with much lower rankings than GW’s, not only are they admitting students at very, very high rates, but their standards are also dropping.”
Charles Garris, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee, said an increase in acceptances would only be concerning if it meant less-qualified students were taking spots intended for more competent students.
He said GW should make sure its class sizes remain small and the kind of individualized attention that students have become accustomed to isn’t ignored for the sake of having more students in each course.
“What kind of quality education can we deliver?” he said. “If the enrollment becomes too big, then it becomes very difficult to handle the students and give them personal attention.”
Mary Ellen McIntire contributed reporting.
This post was updated to reflect the following corrections:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that GW had 15,085 full-time, undergraduate students. It actually has 9,226. The Hatchet also incorrectly reported that the D.C.-imposed enrollment cap of 16,553 included undergraduate students when it actually includes both undergraduate and graduate students. We regret these errors.