Is College Really Harder to Get Into Than It Used To Be?

"The myth of selectivity, that college admissions gets harder with each passing year, is both true and untrue."
Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

At a recent alumni dinner for my alma mater in Manhattan, a representative of the school welcomed us with these uncomfortable words: “Chances are most of us here would not even be admitted to this college today.” But this isn’t new: I’ve heard that refrain at several alumni events now, and it’s always intended, unequivocally, as institutional pride. The message: Our school is so competitive and selective now that if you applied today with the same SAT’s and grade point average you had a decade or two ago, you probably wouldn’t get in.

To hear schools tell it, getting into college has become an uphill battle, with each new freshman class eclipsing the one before it. Last week, the University of Pennsylvania announced that the class of 2018 was the most competitive class yet, as UPenn’s admit rate had dropped below 10 percent for the first time in its history.  

And a day later, Harvard said  that it had accepted 5.9 percent—2,023 of 34,295—of the students applying for the incoming class of 2018.

To parents, high school kids and college counselors who follow these numbers religiously, this was a sliver of hope. Harvard’s 2014 overall admit rate was a slight increase from previous years—although the percentage of admitted applicants considered under regular decision (including those deferred earlier this fall) was only 3.1 percent, a .3 percent drop from last year.

The changes are minuscule. But while Penn’s admit rates were down, and Harvard’s were up this year, the perception remains the same: Getting into college seems harder than ever before, with the odds unlikely to improve anytime soon. The reality of college admissions, however, is a more complicated picture. As it turns out, getting into college actually isn’t any harder than it was a decade ago. It’s just that the odds of admission to your particular college may have decreased. 

The myth of selectivity, that college admissions gets harder with each passing year, is both true and untrue, according to Dan Edmonds, vice president of research and development for Noodle.org, an education company that helps high school students and parents with the college search process. The bad news is that getting into any specific school is less likely than it was a few years ago, and certainly more difficult than it was 15 years ago, because the number of strong applicants to selective schools has mushroomed. “I’m 43 and when I was applying to college, the norm was applying to three or four schools if you were a gunner,” said Edmonds.  Today, applying to six or seven places is on the low end. Many high achieving students will apply to 10 or 15 schools, so you’re looking at doubling or even tripling the number of applications from the same pool of applicants.

Application inflation is linked, he believes, to the Common App, an application and essay that works for multiple schools, so there’s no extra paperwork associated with applying to many more places. In 1998, the Common App went online, and today, the vast majority of “selective colleges” allow students to use it—driving up their own selectivity.

But the good news is that while an increase in applications generally leads to a smaller admit rate at top tier schools, the number of American high school seniors is shrinking, having peaked in 2011. At the same time, according to Noodle’s data, the number of seats at competitive colleges has grown faster than the total pool of qualified applicants—raising a student’s chances of getting into a “selective college,” though not necessarily the one she has her heart set on. (Case in point: my alma mater Johns Hopkins, a fairly selective, four-year private research university, has added about a third more seats since I graduated in 1998, and says this year they had a record 16 percent increase in applications.)

But the dwindling number of high school students doesn’t tell the whole story, according to Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, co-author of “Admissions Matters: What Students And Parents Need To Know About Getting Into College,” and previously a senior admissions officer at Stanford. “American demographics are very useful for figuring out Medicare and Social Security, but they’re meaningless in terms for college selectivity,” said Reider. “The globalization of applicants has changed the nature of college admissions.”

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Jacoba Urist is a contributing journalist for NBC News, where she covers health, education, and gender issues. More

She received her JD and LL.M in taxation from New York University School of Law and a Masters in Public Policy from The Johns Hopkins Institute For Health and Social Policy. She has also written for Time, Newsweek/TheDailyBeast, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

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