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, 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.”

Today, an American college education has become a consumer good—and schools are actively marketing themselves overseas. In growth economies like China, India, Korea and Brazil, and certain parts of the Middle East, Reider explained, there is a certain status associated with attending an American college—and not just traditional marquee names like UPenn and Harvard. In fact, state schools that historically were easier for American students to get into, or were the flagship campuses for a state’s most qualified students, have earned international cachet.

Take China for instance. With a strong one-child policy, the Chinese middle class increasingly wants to send their single offspring to an American university—and by and large, these international applicants don’t need financial aid. In light of the last recession, the international application market has become economically vital to the “next tier” of schools or flagship state campuses, as Reider describes them. “International applicants will pay out-of-state tuition at places like Michigan State and Berkeley and UCLA,” he said, “making these schools much more competitive than they once were for in-state applicants, which puts pressure on the whole system.”

If schools that were once considered “safeties” now have admissions rates as low as 20 or 30 percent, it appears tougher to get into college every spring. But “beneath the headlines and urban legends,” Jim Hull, senior policy analyst at the National School Board Association’s Center for Public Education, says their 2010 report shows that it was no more difficult for most students to get into college in 2004 than it was in 1992. While the Center plans to update the information in the next few years to reflect the past decade of applicants, students with the same SAT and GPA in the 90’s basically have an equal probability of getting into a similarly selective college today. The problem, according to the report, is that there is a “silent achievement gap” as low-income and minority students are much less likely than their higher-income and white peers to earn the same credentials.

“Schools with hefty endowments like Princeton for example, are able to actively recruit lower socio-economic kids,” said Princeton sociology professor, Dr. Thomas J. Espenshade, co-author of  “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admissions and Life.” “Schools however, particularly with the recession, who have to keep one eye on the amount of financial aid they are able to give, will be tougher for lower-income and working class families.” And he agrees, as more state schools recruit out of state and internationally, there may be a squeeze on working class kids in their own home state as a result of these pressures on admissions—making schools more selective.

Wealthier families on the other hand, have the resources and flexibility to ensure that their children attend the highest quality high schools, prepare for college admissions tests, and are exposed to the cultural and experiential capital they need to gain acceptance to the most selective schools. “Although they might not be able to get into their first choice,” said Shannon Monnat, assistant professor of Rural Sociology and Demography at Penn State University, “we should not view this as a sign that these kids have no options. There are still many fine universities with higher acceptance rates.”

Social media, though, doesn’t reinforce the reality that you will still get into a good school—if not your very top choice. If anything, it perpetuates this notion of maddening selectivity. The past few weeks, I watched families process college decisions in real time, as parents updated their Facebook friends about how competitive the process has become; whether their kids were waitlisted at Middlebury and the University of Virginia, or rejected from Vanderbilt and USC. “Over the last 20 years, the admissions rates for some schools have been halved or quartered,” explained Lacey Crawford, author of the novel Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy, who spent 15 years working one-on-one with college applicants in cities all over the U.S. and Europe. “[It makes] schools today’s parents knew as backups now red-hot and almost impossible to get into.” Even if there are enough spots at highly rated schools for everyone, as application numbers rise and acceptance rates fall, the entire college process will seem endlessly more competitive and selective.