Many believe that each and every year, it gets more and more difficult to earn admission to highly selective colleges. It’s a misconception. The folks who suggest that it gets more and more difficult generally base their argument on the fact that admission rates go down at these schools year-to-year. But don’t be fooled by lowering admission rates. As Mark Twain taught the world, there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The more students who apply to a given institution, the lower that school’s admission rate invariably will be. Keeping in mind that each year, colleges get better and better at inspiring students to apply, it’s little surprise that admission rates are going down. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s getting more and more difficult to get in.
A Retrospective Analysis of Lowering Admission Rates
A piece in “The Washington Post” entitled “The science behind selective colleges” by Jeffrey J. Selingo offers interesting insight into how admission rates have changed over time — notably since 1988 when “US News & World Report” published its first annual ranking of colleges. Little did colleges know at the time that this publication’s ranking would so drastically change the college admissions process. The mere notion that a magazine’s ranking of colleges would change how how colleges targeted applicants and which applicants they’d accept likely would’ve seemed preposterous back in 1988. Oh but times have changed. In 2017, and while no admissions officer will say it this bluntly, there is little more important to a college admissions office than their “US News & World Report” ranking.
Writes Selingo in reference to that 1988 ranking, “The guide is a window into a much different era in college admissions, one that many of today’s parents of high school students experienced as applicants. What is perhaps most revealing is a list of acceptance rates for top-ranked colleges. Many of the numbers seem like typos when compared to today’s rates. Take Johns Hopkins University. In 1988, it accepted 54 percent of applicants; last year, its acceptance rate was 11 percent. Johns Hopkins is not alone in seeing its rate plummet over the last three decades. The University of Pennsylvania was 35 percent in 1988; last year, 9 percent. Washington University in St. Louis, 62 percent; last year, 16 percent.”
Don’t Stress About Lowering Admission Rates
But just because the admission rates of today at our nation’s highly selective colleges don’t exactly compare to those of 1988, there’s no reason to stress so much. Is it more difficult to get into a highly selective college in 2017 as compared to 1988? You bet. But the difference between 2017 and, say, 2014 we’d argue is not statistically significant — irrespective of a college’s declining admission rates.
And why? Because colleges are simply getting better and better at getting students — even unqualified students — to apply simply to boost their rankings. Selingo offers an excellent perspective on how the approach of highly selective colleges has changed in the years since 1988: “Simply put, they are getting more applicants than ever before. Even though more students are applying, these top-ranked schools haven’t substantially increased the size of their incoming classes. For these top-ranked schools, the admissions business has evolved from a local and regional industry to a national one in which colleges can attract applicants from a wider geographic reach…These colleges have also encouraged more applicants with outreach to high school students and mailings. Colleges buy more than 80 million names of test takers from the College Board annually.” Well said indeed.
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