If you tell me that I can take my child to Six Flags but there is a chance I may not get in, that will dissuade me and make me less likely to go. However, the opposite is true with college admissions. The colleges that are on the verge of closing and are lowering their costs and offering generous merit scholarships are having a hard time attracting applicants. Conversely, the colleges that cost the most, refuse to get merit money, and are the hardest to get in, get more and more applications every year.
If you need proof that the most prestigious colleges are getting harder and harder to get into, here is what an article from the Harvard Crimson says:
Admissions rates at Harvard and at universities throughout the country have been trending downward in recent application cycles. Harvard’s overall and early acceptance rates have decreased each year for the past five years. Rates have similarly decreased at Stanford, Princeton, Penn, and Columbia over the past five years. Yale—which increased the size of its incoming freshman classes beginning with the Class of 2021—saw its acceptance rate rise to 6.9 percent after the school began admitting more students last year, though its acceptance rate dropped again to 6.31 this admissions cycle.
The article also says:
Out of the group of 10 schools, Stanford was the most selective, with an admissions rate of 4.3 percent. For the fifth year in a row, Stanford had a lower rate than Harvard, which accepted 4.59 percent of students who applied—marking the first time Harvard College has ever dipped below 5 percent.
What is going on here? Here are four reasons people keep applying to the colleges that are the most likely to reject them:
Reason Number 1: The harder a school is to get into, the more its prestige is elevated. The more its prestige is elevated, the more people think that having the sheepskin on their office wall and/or having the bumper sticker on their car is going to open up doors. There is ample evidence that this is a fallacy, but nevertheless, the appeal is strong. I would encourage you to Google a May 16 article by Lynn O’Shaunessy that appears in the blog, “The College Solution” entitled, “Mythical Golden Tickets and the Ivy League.” In this article, O’Shaunessy says:
Affluent parents and teenagers often believe that ‘golden tickets’ are plentiful if you attend an elite university and preferably one of the Ivies. Earn a bachelor’s degree from a place like Harvard, Princeton, or Stanford and job opportunities will magically appear. All of this is nonsense.
Reason Number 2: The harder colleges are to get into, the more students keep applying to more schools, which just makes each college’s acceptance rate get lower and lower. It is a vicious cycle. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 36 percent of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more colleges in the fall of 2015. Just 10 years earlier, in the fall of 2005, 17 percent of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more institutions.
Reason Number 3: Colleges are under more scrutiny than ever to enroll more students that look like the average American from a socio-economic standpoint. Consider the fact that there are 38 private selective colleges that have more students from the top 1 percent of incomes (over $630,000) than there are from the bottom 60 percent of incomes (under $65,000). One college has three times as many students from families with over $630,000 than they have students making under $65,000.
The blowback over this disparity has not been lost on colleges and many are recruiting more “average income” and “low income” students with a deliberateness and intentionality unlike anything they have ever done before. I spoke to one admissions officer who told me 13 percent of all their applications last year were from QuestBridge, a program for gifted and talented under-resourced families. Targeting this untapped demographic is causing application numbers to spike.
Reason Number 4: I was listening to Eric Furda, Dean of Admissions at UPenn, explain why he believes UPenn and so many other highly selective colleges have smashed records for their lowest acceptance rates. He said something I thought was profound, something that had never crossed my mind. When the Redesigned SAT was released in March 2016, the average scores were about 80 points higher for the average testers and between 30-40 points higher for the high testers. This change was caused by removing the penalty for incorrect answers and switching from five choices to four choices for the multiple choice tests. According to Furda, this has caused students to think their scores are actually better than they are. This makes sense to me. A lot of the guidebooks, and even the websites that students consult to see average scores, will not have been updated with the new data.
My advice to students is that it is a fallacy to automatically conclude that because a college is harder to get into, this makes it a better college. There are advantages to being challenged and being surrounded by highly motivated peers who will stretch you and challenge you in ways like you have not been challenged before, but there are also advantages to going to a school where you can excel in the classroom without academics consuming your life.