In recent weeks, many colleges and universities across the country sent out their decisions to applicants. Top tier schools are touting their very low acceptance rates: “Record-low 5.6 percent of applicants admitted to Class of 2027,” a headline in Vanderbilt’s student newspaper proclaimed. “N.Y.U. acceptance rate drops to 8 percent for Class of 2027,” Washington Square News reported, “the most selective class in its history.” Harvard — the brand name school to end all brand names — had an acceptance rate of 3.4 percent this year, according to Harvard Magazine.
Many parents — especially the grade-grubbing graduates of Ivy League schools, like me — take a look at these numbers and feel their pulses spike, even if their children are years away from college. I’m not fixated on the idea of my kids going to a highly coveted school. And I don’t want them to be as worried as I was about getting into the “right” college, which caused me plenty of misery at the back end of high school (see: crying over a calculus pop quiz). I heartily agreed with my friend and former colleague Jay Caspian Kang when he wrote that with “its brutal competition, its winner-take-all mentality and its undue focus on a handful of elite schools,” the American university system needs a rethink, stat.
But what I do worry about is the stress, sometimes even despair, that these admissions numbers seem to generate. Even if you consistently give your teenagers the message that they’ll find a good next step for themselves after high school, no matter what, if they’re inundated with TikToks about kids with 4.18 G.P.A.s and strong extracurriculars getting wait-listed or rejected all over the place, you might not be able to ease their anxiety.
So, first, I wanted to determine whether these numbers were an accurate reflection of how difficult it was to get into these schools. As Jeffrey Selingo, the author of “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” wrote last month for Times Opinion, the adoption of the Common App, “the single online application now used by more than a thousand institutions,” has led teens to apply to many more schools than they did previously. “Application inflation is most acute at the nation’s brand-name and top-ranked public and private colleges, whose application numbers have ticked up 32 percent since 2020, according to the Common App.”
Since applying is easier (or at least involves fewer postage stamps than it did back in the day), does this mean more students who have relatively little chance of getting into these selective institutions, based on their grades and résumés, are applying? Connie Livingston — who was an admissions officer at Brown for 14 years and is now the head of college counselors at Empowerly, a private counseling company — told me that before the pandemic, qualified applicants made up around 75 to 85 percent of the applicant pool.
Now she thinks there are some students who are “throwing their hat in the game just to see what happens” and that “the number’s probably down to about 60 percent, 65 percent of applicants,” who meet the recommended standardized test scores and grades of the schools they apply to. Livingston cited the common app as a reason for the influx of applications, but she also noted that the loosening of standardized testing requirements played a potential role as well.
I also called Selingo, who said that while these schools are indeed more difficult to get into than they were when today’s parents were applying to colleges, a more reliable measure of a school’s popularity is reached by considering not just a college’s acceptance rate but also its yield rate — how many accepted students actually end up attending that school.
Still, even yield can be somewhat deceiving. In “Who Gets In and Why,” Selingo explains how colleges that are just outside the small group of tippy top schools have manipulated their yield rates. After realizing that strong students were applying to more schools, some colleges started pressuring students to make binding early decision choices. Some parents suspect that schools time their outreach around early decision to when students are at their most vulnerable, implying that switching to early decision will boost their chances of being accepted and save them the stress of waiting a few more months to hear from other schools.
Reading Selingo’s book made me realize the extent to which colleges can game their applicants. It also made me realize how deliberately opaque their decision making is. Selingo takes you behind the scenes in admissions offices at the University of Washington, Emory and Davidson, and shows you that the choices schools make about whom they admit are often about a school’s desire to round out a class in a particular year — a point guard, a cellist, more prospective chemistry majors, more students from Wyoming — than about any individual kid or her achievements.
More and more parents’ eyes have been opened to the absurdity of a system that convinces us it’s worth going into significant debt for top-tier college degrees that can wind up having a questionable return on investment. In his book, first published in 2020, Selingo compared the University of Virginia to Virginia Tech: The University of Virginia, he wrote, admits just “27 percent of applicants and spends about 6 percent of its own aid dollars on merit scholarships.” Virginia Tech, on the other hand, “accepts around 70 percent of students who apply and spends 75 percent of its aid without regard to financial need.” Ten years after graduation, “graduates earn nearly identical average salaries.”
Applying to the University of Virginia has become even more daunting — in March, The Cavalier Daily reported that the admissions rate was 16 percent. And Selingo suggests that American families have pretty much had it with all of this. He has been reporting on education for over two decades, and “If you look at all the polling around college now,” he told me, “Republicans, Democrats, rich, poor, everybody thinks higher education is going in the wrong direction.” Per Pew Research in 2018, Americans “cite inadequate work force preparation and tuition costs as major reasons” they’re disaffected.
As long as they’re getting what they want from the process, colleges aren’t going to change. But the number of high school graduates will likely decline over the next several years, because of the baby bust after the Great Recession. We may see those eye-popping admission rates at many schools go in the other direction and realize that they were always a bit of a mirage anyway.