Will Fewer High School Grads Make College Acceptance Easier?

Kristin Colella

December 11, 2013

It’s that time of year again when high school seniors scramble to send out their college applications, but the Class of 2014 could get a lucky break when it comes to those much-anticipated acceptance letters. A recent Los Angeles Times article caught the nation’s attention when it reported that students may face less competition getting into college this year because of a smaller number of projected high school graduates.

Before you start daydreaming about your child’s acceptance letter into Harvard, though, keep in mind that a smaller graduating class doesn’t mean the nation’s top colleges will be opening the floodgates. MainStreet spoke with college planning experts for their take on how much of an impact the population dip will have on college acceptances.

A Drop in Grads

In order to understand why college acceptance offers may be easier to obtain for this year’s high school seniors, it’s important to take a look at high school graduation numbers through the years. According to a report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), which was cited in the Los Angeles Times article, the number of high school graduates nationally rose from 2.6 million in 1996-97 to a peak of 3.4 million in 2010-11. After the 2010-11 school year, a decline began and the low point will be this school year’s projected 3.2 million high school grads. The decline can be attributed to the fact that the children of Baby Boomers—the Echo Boom generation—are getting older.

Impact on Acceptance

We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the projected decrease in the number of high school graduates is unlikely to make it easier to get into the country’s top colleges.

College Admission Advisors.

Our experts say high application rates at these top schools means competition is still fierce.

“More students are applying to more colleges each year, in part due to the Common Application, which makes it very easy to send the admissions application to dozens of colleges,” says Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com, a student marketing company operating a collection of interactive sites with information and tools to help students further their education. “The raw odds of getting into a top college have decreased due to greater competition for admission.”

Application numbers at many top-tier colleges so far this year already show an increase over last year’s numbers, says Bev Taylor, founder and CEO of Ivy Coach, a New York-based college consulting firm.

“So far at Dartmouth, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, UPenn, Brown, the University of Chicago, Duke and Northwestern, the numbers of early action or early decision applications are up from last year — and in many cases, these early decision and early action figures are the highest in the histories of these colleges,” says Taylor.

The good news: Our experts say a decrease in the number of high school graduates might make students less likely to get rejected by their safety schools.

“Some mid-range and less competitive private colleges may be easier to get into, as well as some state universities,” says Quinn.

The important thing for students to remember is that even if their odds of securing a spot at certain colleges are easier this year, they shouldn’t use this as an excuse to slack off on their applications.

“Colleges will still be very concerned with their yield—the number of students who say ‘yes’ after being admitted,” says Taylor. “If an admissions counselor reading an application thinks that the student may have little or no intention to attend, then that student will very likely not be admitted.”

When it comes to choosing which schools to apply to, there are some essential tips to keep in mind.

“I think every student needs to do their own self-assessment before they jump into the full college exploration process, which includes a review of their high school transcript and a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses,” says Sara Cronin, senior admission consultant for Road to College, a college consulting service.

Cronin suggests that students ask themselves these important questions: what classes have I really enjoyed? What has been most challenging? What topics do I find interesting and engaging?

“This will help the student get a better sense of possible college academic interests and possibly narrow down schools that don’t fit their needs,” Cronin explains.