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Report finds more 'highly competitive' colleges

We've heard many highly competitive colleges report that they are becoming more selective, with larger numbers of applications, lower admission rates and higher average test scores and grades than ever. This is due, in large part, to steady growth in the college-bound population, without a matching rise in the number of seats available at the selective schools.

In a new book, "Rewarding Strivers: Helping Low-Income Students Succeed in College," researchers Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl report a related trend: a growing number of colleges that fit the definition of "highly competitive."

(Click here for a short, catchy op-ed piece by Richard Kahlenberg, editor of the new book.)

Using Barron's definitions, the researchers find that the number of colleges that would be classified as "most competitive" or "highly competitive" has risen from 146 in 1994 to 193 in 2006.

A "most competitive" college tends to admit less than one-third of applicants, reports median SAT scores between 1310 and 1600 and pulls students in the top 10 to 20 percent of their class. "Highly competitive" schools have admission rates below 50 percent, median SAT scores above 1240 and students in at least the top one-third of their class.

While that group has swelled, the list of "less competitive" and noncompetitive colleges has dwindled from 429 in 1994 to 299 in 2006. These are schools with median SAT scores below the national average that accept most or all applicants and take students with C or D averages.

"One system prepares a select minority for leadership and the other prepares the mass of students for jobs," the authors write.

Colleges wage a "self-defeating race for prestige," the authors write, making "a fetish of test scores and the other admissions metrics as a way of keeping score."

A striking example: the acceptance rate at Yale has fallen from 70 percent in 1932 to 8 percent today.

(Not to single out Yale -- the same could probably be said of Harvard or Stanford.)

Colleges mostly compete based on inputs -- such as the test scores of their applicants -- rather than outcomes, such as what graduates have learned. Colleges with stronger reputations are rolling in cash, in comparison to those with weaker reputations, with some studies showing that competitive colleges spend several times more per student than non-competitive schools. (The book says that, by 2006, low-selectivity colleges spent about $12,000 per student, while the most selective spent $92,000.)

The authors see the industry gripped by a "fixation on admitting students with the highest test scores," both to increase prestige and to maximize their graduation rate. By effectively requiring SAT scores in the 1250 range, the most selective colleges exclude "a large swath of less-advantaged students" who may only score 1000 to 1250 on the SAT but still stand a very good chance -- 85 percent -- of graduating, if they are admitted.

Those stringent entry requirements guarantee that students who enroll at an Ivy League school will see a great many wealthy people and a very few poor people studying beside them. I'll write more on this point in another post.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  June 22, 2010; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Access , Admissions , Rankings , Research  | Tags: Highly competitive colleges, colleges more selective, more competitive colleges, more highly selective colleges, strivers report  
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While this is interesting, I'd like to see an associated study on the average GPA/SAT/ACT scores of the applying students (stripping out AP bonuses).

I know a lot of my friends with college-aged kids have their kids applying to far many more colleges than I ever did, hoping that they get into enough for there to be a choice. Sometimes that's "safety" schools, sometimes, that's unattainable "dream" schools.

Also, in Virginia, it seems that every senior applies to UVA and W&M, even if they don't actually have the grades for it. Because it's just something you do. Back in the 80's I applied because all my friends were aghast I didn't. (I got in at the top of the waitlist - the waitlist and acceptance letter were barely a few weeks apart.)

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | June 22, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

I have been working with students as a college planner and educational consultant for more than twenty years and I think your comments are quite accurate. Some of it is due to the "trickle down effect" which finds students who are rejected by the Ivy League going to their next choice and often that is less competitive than their first. That raises the grades and test scores of that particular school. The prestige factor is another problem and as schools love to brag about their GPA's and high test scores, it only gets worse for the students. It seems more and more like a vicious cycle with no end in sight.

Susie Watts
Denver, Colorado

Posted by: collegedirection | June 22, 2010 11:31 PM | Report abuse

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