Major changes to the college process in 2024


This past year has resulted in some of the most significant changes to the college planning process in decades. Admission trends have changed how colleges admit students, there are substantial changes to the FAFSA and college financial aid that may make college more expensive for middle class and affluent families,  but also provide attractive financial planning opportunities, and schools have gone test optional, but not necessarily when they award scholarships.


admission trendsAdmission trends


Applications to more selective colleges are soaring, causing admission rates at these schools to drop from what were already low percentages to begin with. From 2020 to 2022, Harvard’s acceptance rate fell from 5.0% to 3.2%, Northwestern’s fell from 9.0% to 7.0% and Notre Dame’s fell from 19.0% to 12.9%.

This same trend is now happening at public flagship universities such as the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, especially in more competitive majors such as business and engineering. Students who would have been accepted 5 or 10 years ago, are now routinely denied due to stronger pools of applicants.

GPAs are on the rise. According to the College Board, 60 percent of college applicants in the class of 2021 had a 4.0 or better. In 1990, the average GPA of high school students was 2.59; today it is 3.0.

It is increasingly difficult for students to stand out on raw data like grades and test scores, so how they communicate their unique selves through the college essay, passion projects and other application supplements, has never been more important.


College financial aid


Both SECURE Acts are introducing significant changes to the college financial aid process in 2024 that will require new planning strategies for both parents and grandparents.

New this year are rules on 529 plans and other college contributions, how multiple students in college are treated, financial aid for divorced families and more. Certain middle and upper income families will qualify for less financial aid as a result, and will need to plan differently.


First, the good news. 

529 Plan funds owned by grandparents or other non-nuclear family members such as aunts and uncles no longer negatively impact a student’s ability to qualify for need-based financial aid.

And as of January 2024, unused 529 Plan funds can be rolled over into Roth IRAs tax and penalty free.

A 529 plan is a savings vehicle that offers tax-free earnings for college savers, as long as the funds are withdrawn for “qualified” educational expenses. There had been minimal workarounds for money not used if a child doesn’t go to college or doesn’t need the full amount of the 529 accounts; this new legislation provides greater flexibility for these accounts.


There are a handful of changes that are less favorable for middle and upper income families.


Families with multiple kids in college at the same time will no longer be able to divide amongst those students the amount the FAFSA says they are expected to contribute toward college, dramatically reducing the amount of need-based financial aid they will qualify for.

Small business owners with less than 100 employees, including family farms, are no longer exempt from reporting their net worth as an asset on the FAFSA. Depending on the value of the business, this could significantly reduce the ability of certain families to qualify for need-based financial aid. 

Finally, many divorced families will be paying more for college. Previously, the parent with whom the student lived with the majority of the time completed the FAFSA. Now, the parent who provides the majority of financial support fills it out.


student taking testTesting


The pandemic rapidly accelerated the trend of colleges not requiring test scores for admission, and now over 90 percent of colleges are test optional in some form. However, test scores remain trusted data points as GPAs rise, and a competitive test score – which varies based on the specific school you are applying to – can be an asset in the admissions process. Colleges who do not require a test score for admission may still use test scores when awarding merit scholarships, and schools such as Dartmouth and Brown that had gone test optional, are now requiring test scores again.

The SAT is now entirely an online test, and is also adaptive, meaning the difficulty of questions change based on how students fared on earlier questions.

As the process has become more complex, families now have more strategic decisions to make: Whether to test at all, how many times, whether to submit the score and to which colleges. Test anxiety and test fatigue are meaningful issues for students, and should be considered in the full context of everything else a student has going.