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Real College-Acceptance Rates Are Higher Than You Think

Every year around this time colleges and universities release their acceptance rates. Every year the most selective colleges report that acceptance rates are at an all-time low, which freaks out the next class of high school juniors to no end. So every year I make the following point, which is that it’s not as hard for qualified students to get into a selective college as it seems. Here’s why:

1) The general perception of a tightening admissions environment is highly driven by the annual publication of institutional acceptance rates. People arrive at the seemingly reasonable conclusion that if the acceptance rates at all the top schools decline (as they have been) then it’s harder to get into a top school.

2) That is not necessarily the case. That’s because there are at least three possible explanations for declining acceptance rates: (A) A larger number of qualified students are applying for a fixed number of slots. (B) A larger number of unqualified students are applying for a fixed number of slots. (C) The same number of qualified students are sending out more applications for a fixed number of slots.

3) Only the first case (A) represents an actual tightening of admissions. It doesn’t matter how many unqualified people apply to selective schools. Admissions selectivity is only an issue for people who have a plausible case to be admitted. And if the same population of qualified students increases the number of applications they submit for the same number of slots—if students apply to all eight Ivy League schools whereas in previous years the same students only applied to four, for example—this will have the effect of driving down admissions rates at every selective school while not changing the odds of a student getting a spot in a selective school. (It will, however, probably decrease the odds of students getting into exactly the selective school they want.) That’s because while every student can increase the number of schools to which they apply (I’m assuming that few students apply to every selective college in the nation) no student can increase the number of schools in which he or she decides to enroll, since that number is limited to one. Under these circumstances, if you ask an admissions officer if they’re getting more qualified applicants, they will correctly say “yes.” If all the admissions officers say that, it seems like irrefutable evidence that more qualified applicants are applying. But it might just be that the same number of qualified applicants are sending out more applications.

4) The only way to really answer this question definitively and parse the extent to which declining admissions rates are a function of (A), (B), or (C) would be to analyze the applicant pools at a number of selective institutions over a number of years. Institutions protect that information so that is not likely to happen anytime soon. But it seems reasonable to assume that some not-insignificant percentage of the decline in admissions rates is attributable to (B) and (C) and not (A).

5) Electronic applications have reduced the time cost of applying to college and selective colleges have strong incentives to keep financial costs low because low acceptance rates are a sign of institutional prestige. Therefore, it seems likely that the application/student ratio will increase among students vying for selective spots and thus institutional acceptance rates will continue to decline. Where does it end? Selective colleges are struggling to process 20,000 to 30,000 applications as it is. What if it grows to 100,000 or more? As Chad Aldeman perceptively notes, the more acceptance odds fall to lottery-like levels, the more students will treat the process like the randomized lottery it’s becoming and the more tickets they’ll buy. The process will feed on itself. Eventually, colleges may have no choice but to run the selective undergraduate admissions process as an actual lottery, as medical residency programs are run today.

6) And of course it’s always worth noting that the vast majority of college students don’t go to a selective college at all and they’re the ones we should be worrying about.

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