Rise in College Rejection Rates

May 2, 2007

Bridget Kulla

You may have seen the headlines: College Rejection Rates at Record Highs. With schools like the University of Pennsylvania and Pomona College admitting less than two out of every 10 people who apply, you may think you’ll never get into your top-choice school. Don’t despair. The headlines appear daunting, but there’s more to rejection rates than these headlines would lead you to believe.

There’s no denying that 2007 was an extremely competitive year for college admissions. Highly-selective schools saw their admissions rates hover around 10 percent. Harvard University admitted a record-low nine percent of applicants. Even schools outside the Ivy League admitted fewer students this year, like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which accepted only 33 percent of applicants.

Why have rejection rates increased? A few key factors contribute to high rejection rates.

  • The number of students enrolling in college has reached an all-time high. More than 17.3 million students enrolled in post-secondary institutions in 2005, which is more than three million greater than a decade ago, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The number of students enrolling in post-secondary education is expected to continue its increase for the next few years. College enrollment is projected to reach 19 million by 2014, according to NCES.
  • Students are applying to more colleges. Not only are there more students enrolling in colleges, they tend to apply to more colleges than before. Seventy-three percent of colleges reported an increase in applications in 2005, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Many colleges, like the University of Chicago, are seeing record numbers of applicants. The College Board suggests that some students are now applying to 20 or more colleges, while in the past five to eight colleges was the norm. “There’s so much panic out there that more and more students are applying to more colleges. That’s really a problem,” Jim Sumner, dean of admissions at Grinnell College, says.

Additionally, online applications have made it easier to apply to multiple colleges. An increase in the use of online applications has been reported by 85 percent of colleges, according to NACAC.

With an increased number of applicants for the same limited number of class positions, rejection rates are bound to rise at some schools. Despite the headlines, low acceptance rates publicized by schools like Harvard and the University of Chicago remain the exception—not the rule—when it comes to admissions. On average, four-year colleges accept seven out of every 10 students who apply for admission, NACAC reports. Most schools still accept more students than they reject.

“There are over 4,000 colleges in the country and the whole conversation about rejection rates going up is tied to a relative handful of colleges, certainly less than 100,” Sumner says. “I can close my eyes and name over 100 colleges that are still accepting applications and would love to have more people and I can guarantee students could get into all 100 of them.”

To avoid being rejected, be realistic about your chances of being accepted. “A lot of students only apply to highly selective schools and they have no backups. Students need to do their homework and find out that these schools are such longshots and they’re not going to be accepted,” Bev Taylor, an independent college counselor, says.

Sumner suggests having one or two schools you’re sure you can get into, one or two that are a stretch but that you’re 70 percent sure will accept you, and one or two that are stretches. “Applying to a double-digit number [of schools] is absurd. It just means you haven’t done your research,” he says.

If you are rejected from all the schools you applied to, it’s not the end of the world. You’ll probably still be able to enroll in a local college in time for the fall semester. You can make plans to reapply as a transfer student for the spring semester. This time, follow Taylor’s advice above, and do your admissions homework.