The Big Squeeze

Michael Winerip provides a plethora of anecdotal evidence for the conclusion that it's becoming much more difficult to get into an elite college. Roughly speaking, he interviews Harvard applicants, they seem much more qualified to him than he was when he successfully applied back in the day, and none of them ever get in. And, of course, these scare stories are based on data. Everybody knows that "several Ivies, including Harvard, rejected a record number of applicants this year." The trick, as Kevin Carey has helpfully pointed out is that this isn't really true. For every applicant, there are some number of applications and the number of applications-per-student has been growing rapidly:

When the number of applications grows faster than the number of applicants, it creates a false sense that admission standards are getting tighter. Imagine 20 students, each of whom applies to five schools and gets into two. Now imagine if the same students each applied to ten schools and got into two. The outcome for the students is the same: two acceptance letters. But the schools report lower admission rates, and the odds of admission seem worse.

In particular, Carey notes that the number of acceptances at the Ivy League increased 10.6 percent between 2002-2006, which was faster than the rate of increase in the number of high school graduates. It was, however, slower than the 28.6 percent rate of increase in the number of college applications. And it's easy to see why students are mailing off more applications -- compared to other things prosperous families do to help their kids get an edge in the admissions process, just mailing more applications is simple and relatively cheap. From a social point of view, however, an escalating arms race in which everyone is applying to dozens of colleges won't be a very happy end point.