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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 04/ 3/2010

The illusion of ever-lower college acceptance rates

By Valerie Strauss

It may just be me, but I found myself getting increasingly annoyed as I read my colleague Jenna Johnson’s blogpost detailing the latest admissions statistics for some of the nation’s most elite schools.

For example, Harvard University’s 7 percent overall rate of admissions last year was apparently not low enough. This year, it dropped to 6.9 percent. Harvard received more than 30,000 applications this year, a 5 percent increase from last year, and accepted 2,110 students.

“That’s 28,000 broken hearts,” one admissions staff member said as several passed trays stuffed with rejections into a car to be mailed, according to the student newspaper the Harvard Crimson.

Duke University was down to 14.8 percent from 18 percent last year, after receiving 26,770 applications, up 11 percent from last year.

“The admissions rate and the selectivity rate is going to keep declining,” Michael Schoenfeld, Duke's vice president for public affairs and government relations, was quoted as saying in an article in the Duke Chronicle.

Dartmouth College put out a press release saying its acceptance rate was 11.5 percent, down from last year’s 12.5 percent (after receiving the most applications the college ever got, 18,778).

Schools won’t say they are bragging that they send rejection letters to almost all of the kids, but that’s what it seems like to me. Why release these figures in the first place unless they want everyone to know how preciously elite they are?

(I know, I know; these statistics are considered important for college ratings, such as U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings. But why anybody thinks those rankings are important is an issue for another time.)

But the real problem is that these super-low selectivity rates suggest something about college admissions that isn’t actually true.

It seems reasonable to look at ever-lower acceptance rates at the nation’s most elite colleges and think that it is exponentially harder than it used to be for highly qualified students to get into one of these schools.

It isn’t.

The application rises at these elite schools don't necessarily mean there are fewer spots for qualified students. According to a recent report called “Chasing the College Acceptance Letter,” the number of open slots at colleges has increased at nearly the same rate as the increase in the number of high school graduates, and this has been as true at non-elite schools as it is at elite institutions.

In fact, high-achieving students have a slightly easier time today getting into the nation’s most selective schools than they did in 1992, and the same as a decade ago, said the report, done by the Center for Public Education, an initiative of the not-for-profit National Schools Board Association.

Another factor is that many students applying to top schools aren’t really qualified to attend. According to the report:

“As one analyst put it, they are sending out applications to some schools with “$65 and a dream” (Carey 2007). Think of it this way: Does a C student sending an application to Harvard decrease the school’s acceptance rate? Yes. But does it decrease the chances of a straight-A student getting admitted? Doubtful.”

Surely it is true that many students who could succeed at Harvard don't get in. But that has long been true.

We are still left, however, with the annual announcements of just how exclusive some of these schools are. Since they insist, I wish they would include information that would help tell the real admissions story: How many applications are immediately rejected, how many really get serious consideration and for what reasons. Those statistics might put a different cast on the admissions game.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 3, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, High School  | Tags:  college admissions  
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Excellent point.

Many of the people who apply to these "ultra selective" schools don't expect to get in, and probably shouldn't count against selectivity ratings. It's their long shot application.

It's pretty much a game these days.

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Posted by: zhenshideaq | April 3, 2010 9:25 PM | Report abuse

Have you ever thought that the caliber of a high-level applicant has increased and that the entire skill set of an applicant has had to be better since the 1990's?

Other than citing a questionable study, you have done no research/interviews to back up your point. Talk to a 2010 college applicant and a college applicant of 1996. Then you'll know the difference.

Until then, learn the rules of writing anything close to an academic paper.

Posted by: ericwu | April 4, 2010 4:04 AM | Report abuse

It is no longer an A student versus a C student. It is about an A student against another A student and 'who gets there' quicker.

Posted by: elenan | April 5, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

As a college consultant, I have watched some of my best students rejected from many of the top schools. It seems to me that ten years ago, students who had all A's and strong test scores had a pretty good chance of getting in. Today, you need all A's, great test scores, strong essays and outstanding and unusual
extra curricular activities.

Susie Watts
Denver, Colorado

Posted by: collegedirection | April 9, 2010 12:19 AM | Report abuse

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