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Posted at 7:30 AM ET, 04/21/2010

Is it really harder to get into top colleges?

By Valerie Strauss

Earlier this month I wrote a post saying that while super-low selectivity rates at the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities suggest that it is harder for students to get in, it actually isn’t.

A reader blasted me, saying that I had cited only one study and that I should get more evidence.

So I asked Kevin Carey, the education director of the non-profit Education Sector, to discuss the issue, which he has been tracking for years. In fact, my colleague Jay Mathews, quoted Carey a few years ago on this very issue in a post on his blog, Class Struggle, which you can read here.

It was Carey’s analysis, which he explained on www.prospect.org, the website of The American Prospect< magazine, that it is not, in fact, harder to gain admission to a highly selective college even as admissions rates are declining.

Today it is big news in the education world that acceptance rates at top schools are lower than ever because the number of applications keeps going up.

For example, Harvard University’s acceptance rate was 6.9 percent this year. Why? Harvard received more than 30,000 applications, a 5 percent increase over last year, and accepted 2,110 students. According to the Quick and the Ed, the Education Sector's blog, about one of every 60 students who will begin college this fall had applied to Harvard.

Yale University’s acceptance rate was 7.5 percent, Princeton’s 8.2 percent. You get the idea--low enough to scare any high school junior out of his or her mind.

My colleague Daniel DeVise wrote in a story in that students today apply to many more schools than they used to.

I asked Carey this week if his argument still stands. Here’s a shortened version of what he told me. You can get the full version on the Quick and the Ed blog.

1) The general perception of a tightening admissions environment is highly driven by the annual publication of institutional acceptance rates. People arrive at the seemingly reasonable conclusion that if the acceptance rates at all the top schools decline (as they have been) then it’s harder to get into a top school.

2) This is not necessarily the case. That’s because there are at least three possible explanations for declining acceptance rates: (A) A larger number of qualified students are applying for a fixed number of slots. (B) A larger number of unqualified students are applying for a fixed number of slots. (C) The same number of qualified students are sending out more applications for a fixed number of slots.

3) Only the first case (A) represents an actual tightening of admissions. It doesn’t matter how many unqualified people apply to selective schools. Admissions selectivity is only an issue for people who have a plausible case to be admitted.

If the same population of qualified students increases the number of applications they submit for the same number of slots, this will drive down admissions rates at every selective school, while not changing the odds of a student getting a spot in a selective school. (It will, however, probably decrease the odds of students getting into exactly the selective school they want.)

That’s because while every student can increase the number of schools to which he or she applies, no student can increase the number of schools in which he or she decides to enroll. That number is limited to one.

Under these circumstances, if you ask admissions officers if they are receiving more qualified applicants, they will correctly say “yes.” If all the admissions officers say that, it seems like irrefutable evidence that more qualified applicants are applying. But it might just be that the same number of qualified applicants are sending out more applications.

4) The only way to really answer this question definitively and parse the extent to which declining admissions rates are a function of (A), (B), or (C) would be to analyze the applicant pools at a number of selective institutions over a number of years. Institutions protect that information so this is not likely to happen anytime soon. But it seems reasonable to assume that some not-insignificant percentage of the decline in admissions rates is attributable to (B) and (C) and not (A).

5) Electronic applications have reduced the time cost of applying to college and selective colleges have strong incentives to keep financial costs low because low acceptance rates are a sign of institutional prestige. Therefore, it seems likely that the application to student ratio will increase among students competing for selective spots, and institutional acceptance rates will continue to decline.

Where does it end? Selective colleges are struggling to process 20,000 to 30,000 applications as it is. What if it grows to 100,000 or more? As Chad Aldeman perceptively notes, the more acceptance odds fall to lottery-like levels, the more students will treat the process like the randomized lottery it’s becoming and the more tickets they’ll buy. The process will feed on itself. Eventually, colleges may have no choice but to run the selective undergraduate admissions process as an actual lottery, as medical residency programs are run today.

6) And of course it’s always worth noting that the vast majority of college students don’t go to a selective college at all and they’re the ones we should be worrying about.

Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking washingtonpost.com/answersheet And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our new Higher Education page at washingtonpost.com/higher-ed Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | April 21, 2010; 7:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college acceptance rates, college admissions, getting into Harvard, jay mathews, selectivity rates, the class struggle, the education sector, the quick and the ed  
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