College & Workforce Readiness

How Many Colleges Do Students Apply to? The Answer Might Surprise You.

By Catherine Gewertz — August 31, 2017 2 min read
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You’ve heard the stories, no doubt: the beleaguered high school senior, scrambling to submit 12 or 15 college applications before deadline.

Every fall, as college-application season takes hold, you can count on seeing yet another crop of those stories. But they distort reality. Sure, there are high-achieving, high-stress pockets of the country where these stories are true. But they’re exceptions to the norm.

New figures out today from the federal government remind us of this. The most common number of colleges students apply to is one.

That’s right. One.

Take a look at this graph from the National Center for Education Statistics brief on college-application patterns. You’ll see that in most racial and ethnic groups, the largest share of college-applying students apply to, or register for, just one school. (The NCES uses “apply” to refer to selective colleges, and “register” for colleges that are non-selective.)

The NCES’ sample was students who were freshmen in 2009. Researchers checked back with the students, or their parents, in 2013 to find out about their college plans.

They found that overall, the average number of applications was just under three. But submitting only one application was by far the most popular choice for white, African-American and Hispanic students. Asians were the exception: they were most likely to apply to, or register for, five or more schools.

Overall, 79 percent of the students had applied to, or registered for, college by the fall of 2013, four years after they had been freshmen, the NCES reports. But there are big racial and ethnic differences inside that overall number.

Asian-American and white students had the highest rate of application/registration, with 91 percent and 81 percent, respectively. Black and Hispanic students came in at 76 percent and 74 percent, respectively. Only 63 percent of Native American students had applied to college. White and Hispanic students were more likely to finish high school but not apply to college. Fourteen percent of Hispanic students and 13 percent of white students did so.

This study is a snapshot of students’ plans immediately after high school graduation. But we know from research that many students who enroll in college do so after a bit of a delay, for a variety of reasons. And we also know that there is a “summer melt” phenomenon can often mean that students who’ve been accepted to college don’t end up actually getting there.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.