Sally P. Springer, PhD, is associate chancellor emerita at the University of California, Davis, and a psychologist with more than 30 years of experience in higher education as a professor and administrator. She has taken the college admissions journey twice with her children.
Jon Reider, PhD, is director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, an independent 9-12 high school. For 15 years he served as an admissions officer and taught humanities at Stanford University.
Joyce Vining Morgan, PhD, is a certified educational planner specializing in college admissions with an online individualized practice. She has over 20 years of experience in college admissions counseling.
Why Has College Admissions Become So Competitive?
For members of the baby boom generation born between 1946 and 1964, applying to college was a pretty simple process. Those bound for a four-year college usually planned to go to a school in their home state or one fairly close by; many considered a college even 300 miles from home to be far away. Few students felt the need to apply to more than two or three colleges, and many applied to just one. They chose their colleges based on location, program offerings, cost, and difficulty of admission, with a parental alma mater sometimes thrown in for good measure. For the most part, the whole process was fairly low key. If students did their homework carefully before deciding where to apply, the outcome was usually predictable. Of course, there were surprises-some pleasant and some disappointing-but nothing that would raise the issue of college as to the level of a national obsession.
IT USED TO BE SIMPLE . . . BUT NOT ANYMORE
Fast-forward 50 to 60 years when headlines tell a very different story for students applying to college now: "Why Is College Admissions Such a Mess,"1 "Applied to Stanford or Harvard? You Probably Didn't Get In. Admit Rates Drop, Again,"2 "New SAT Brings New Challenges, Same Old Pressure,"3 "Best, Brightest and Rejected: Elite Colleges Turn Away up to 95%,"4 "How College Admissions Has Turned into Something Akin to 'The Hunger Games,'?"5 "Why Colleges Aggressively Recruit Applicants Just to Turn Them Down,"6 and "The Absurdity of College Admissions."7
Colleges themselves make equally jarring announcements. In spring 2003, Harvard announced that for the first time it had accepted just under 10 percent of the students who applied for freshman admission for the class of 2007, or about 2,000 out of 21,000 applicants. This was a new low not only for Harvard but also for colleges nationwide. But much more was to come. By spring 2016, the admissions rate at Harvard had fallen to 5.2 percent out of an applicant pool of over 39,000 for the class of 2020, and at least nine other colleges had joined Harvard in the "under 10 percent" club. Among them was the University of Chicago, reporting an admissions rate of less than 9 percent for the class of 2020, down from a little less than 16 percent five years earlier and just over 38 percent a decade before.
Many public universities, particularly state flagship campuses, have also experienced dramatic growth in applications as well as falling admission rates. For example, UC Berkeley received 82,000 applications for the freshman class of 2020 and admitted 17.5 percent. Ten years prior, the campus received fewer than 42,000 applications and admitted 23.8 percent.
These are just a few of the many colleges reporting record-breaking numbers of applications and record-low rates of admission, continuing a trend that began two decades earlier. What has happened to change the college admissions picture so dramatically in such a relatively short time?
The simple explanation seems to be supply and demand: more high school graduates than ever are now competing for seats in the freshman class. After declining somewhat in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the number of students graduating from high school in the United States has risen steadily. In 1997 there were 2.6 million graduates; by 2013, the number had grown to almost 3.5 million. Although the numbers are now declining slightly, they are projected to stay at or above 3.4 million until 2028.8
I don't think anyone is complacent about getting a high-quality applicant pool.
Harvard University admissions officer
But it turns out that the increase in applications is not just because of population growth. Application numbers have risen much faster than the age cohort because of important social changes. Not only are more students graduating from high school each year but also a greater percentage of them are interested in going to college. Studies confirm that a college diploma increases lifetime earnings, and many desirable careers require education beyond the bachelor's degree. As a result, more students are seeking to attend four-year colleges, including students from underrepresented minority groups who previously attended college at much lower rates.
At the same time, colleges themselves have increased their efforts to attract large, diverse pools of applicants. Many have mounted aggressive programs to spread the word about their offerings nationally and internationally. Through colorful brochures mailed directly to students, e-mail blitzes and social media activity, visits to high schools by admissions officers, college nights at local hotels, and information booths at college fairs, colleges are reaching out to prospective freshmen in the United States and abroad with unprecedented energy and at great expense.
Sophisticated marketing techniques are used not only by colleges that may have problems filling their freshman class but also by colleges with an overabundance of qualified applicants. And it works! As a result, more and more college-bound students have become aware of and are willing to seriously consider colleges far away from home. Rising standards of living across the globe are also contributing to the number of students from abroad, particularly Asia, choosing to study in the United States.
The Role of the Internet
In addition, the Internet has played a major role in how students approach college admissions. Although printed material and in-person presentations still help students learn about different colleges, the web has become the primary source of information for students. Students can visit campuses through sophisticated online virtual tours and videos and find answers to many of their questions from college Facebook pages, FAQs posted on their websites, and by tracking college-sponsored blogs and Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat feeds. Colleges have invested heavily in technology to showcase themselves.
The Internet has also made it easier than ever to apply to college. Applications can be completed and submitted online, saving a lot of the time and effort that traditional paper applications once required. Simplifying things even more, more than 700 colleges now accept the Common Application, a standardized application in which a student can put in his or her basic information just once and then submit it online to up to 20 of those colleges.
With admission harder to predict, students are now submitting more applications than ever before. Ten to 12 applications are now the norm at many private schools and high-performing public high schools; 15 or more applications are not uncommon. Through technology students can apply to an ever-larger number of colleges.
All of these factors taken together-growth in the population of 18 year olds, greater interest in college, sophisticated marketing efforts, ready access to information, and ease of applying made possible by the Internet-explain why it is harder to get into college now than ever before.
But even that is not the whole answer.
As word spreads about the competition for college admission, students respond by applying to even more colleges to increase their chances of acceptance. In so doing, they end up unwittingly contributing to the very problem they are trying to solve for themselves.
High school counselor concerned about the trend
Where the Real Crunch Lies
Many people are quite surprised to learn that with relatively few exceptions, most four-year colleges in the United States still accept well over half of their applicants. In fact, each May, the National Association for College Admission Counseling posts on its website a list of hundreds of colleges still seeking applicants for the fall. Many of these have vacancies well into the summer. How can this fact be reconciled with the newspaper headlines (not to mention firsthand reports from students and parents) about a crisis of hyper-selectivity in college admissions?
It turns out that the real crunch in admissions-the crunch that drives the newspaper headlines and the anxiety that afflicts many families at college application time-applies to only about 150 of the most selective colleges that attract applicants from all over the country and the world. What's wrong with all the rest? Nothing, of course, except that they aren't in that list of 150. Bill Mayher, a college advisor, summarizes the problem succinctly: "It's hard for kids to get into colleges because they only want to get into colleges that are hard to get into."9
WHAT IS SELECTIVITY ALL ABOUT?
The percentage of students offered admission to a college is a major factor in determining its selectivity. As the number of applications to a college increases, its admissions rate decreases. Another key factor affecting selectivity is the academic strength of the applicant pool because strong applicants tend to self-select when applying to certain colleges, especially some smaller ones, well-known for their academic rigor. Both of...