Has College Admissions (at "top" schools) Become Unsustainably Competitive?

As you likely know, acceptance rates are perpetually plummeting at elite universities and liberal arts colleges (and COVID-19 seems to have exacerbated the competition more than usual). For the class of 2025, this has been the most frustratingly competitive year yet for “top” schools (and the trends are likely to continue given the extension of test-optional policies at these institutions).

Some stats (note that some 2025 accept rates are approximated when the exact percentage hasn’t been officially announced):

Number of “T20” Universities (US News)…
…with ≤10% Accept Rate: 17
…with ≤15% Accept Rate: All

Number of “Top 15” LACs (US News)…
…with ≤10% Accept Rate: 8
…with ≤20% Accept Rate: All but one (Smith, #15)

So, has college admissions at the US’s top-ranked colleges become unsustainably competitive, when the vast majority of the highest ranked schools are ultimately denying more than 90% of their applicants? It’s heartbreaking seeing so many of my peers who have dedicated endless amounts of time and energy to their work, both in and out of school, along with their applications, getting denied by all of their favorite schools because of the sheer competition. While there are many fantastic, less selective schools out there, I am wondering if these “top” schools should be held accountable for the amount of competition they seek to create in order to boost their reputation (by trying to constantly inflate their app pool and deflate their acceptance rates).

Note: This is coming from someone who considers themself EXTREMELY fortunate in the admissions process this year, so this isn’t from a “sour grapes” perspective, rather from one that is genuinely concerned about how crazy this process has become.

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It’s not the schools’ problem. It’s that applicants buy into the fallacy of ranking. That’s what’s heartbreaking.

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Exactly. The reality is that most colleges accept most applicants…and with 3,000 four year colleges there are many very good ones.

Is the top 5% (150 schools) good enough? How about the top 10%/300 schools? If not…that’s on those applicants and their families, of which we see a disproportionate number on CC!

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As long as high school students and their parents keep falling for the hype, it will be sustainable.

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Based on the number of posts every year asking for chances, along with the number of international applicants desperate for the generous financial aid, I don’t think there will be a shortage of students looking to fill those limited spots. It is parents pushing kids to attend schools that sound impressive, students trying to justify their hard work, and schools that are really a business and looking for rankings and the millions of dollars in application fees.

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The bigger question is…what makes them “top”? Selectivity tells us one thing, how popular a school is. That’s it. At many of the “top” schools students sit in massive lectures and have their discussions and labs taught by TAs. They don’t get to use the cool toys, because it’s for the graduate students. Having attended a school like that, nothing is “top” about that in my mind.

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I think it also a lack of knowledge about how the admissions process works. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard (in our geographic area) “Whaddya mean you didn’t get into Harvard? All valedictorians get into Harvard!”. They clearly don’t even get the fact that it is mathematically impossible just based on domestic high schools!

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Unsustainable for whom? College is increasingly seen as a means to pass along middle-class wealth from one generation to the next. In order to do that families have to apply to the colleges that dangle the highest discounts in front of them:

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I should clarify. I meant unsustainable as a system itself, not for the individual schools.

Clearly, the schools are doing fine with record low acceptance rates, it means they are statistically “more desirable.” However, as these acceptance rates plummet, more and more students who are perfectly deserving and qualified to going to a highly acclaimed school, if that’s what they want, are unable to due to the sheer amount of competition that escalates every year. More and more students who dedicate their entire 4 years to optimize their chances of going to their “dream schools” are turned away.

Yes, I am in full understanding that there are MANY excellent schools that are not popular in rankings, or whatever other metric. And I am in full agreement that people who can’t stand the thought of attending any school below the 20th mark on a ranking site contributes to the problem. However, I think part of the fault should be placed on the elite schools themselves. They are constantly funding advertisements of their schools to students who are not qualified to attend and/or not suited for the school in order to artificially inflate their applicant pools and decrease their acceptance rate. I have seen no visible effort (except with Rice this year) of these schools to expand their campuses, which they could very well do, and leave more space for the incredibly deserving applicants that are rejected from every single reach/target school they applied to. Of course, the cycle perpetuates itself (the more selective the school, the more desirable it is for college applications, which increases the app pool, and further decreases the acceptance rate, etc.).

The admissions process is already intrinsically subjective enough, having 90%+ rejection rates makes admissions even less of a meritocracy.

Believe me, I absolutely agree that the emphasis students, parents, and society as a whole places on college rankings is extremely detrimental. So, how can we help fix the system to ensure that more deserving students gets into a college that suits their needs and ensures them a successful career? I suppose one way could be to raise awareness the rankings are not in fact indicative of one’s ability to achieve a quality education or a successful career path, though how can we really deemphasize college rankings in a society (at least the wealthy society) that values them so much.

Not trying rebut anyone’s point so far (all of which are perfectly valid), just trying to continue the conversation. :slight_smile:

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“Nobody goes there anymore, it’s way to crowded”

Yogi Berra

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This attitude is exactly the problem. No one deserves to go to any specific school. No student should dedicate their four years of high school trying to optimize their chances to go to dream schools. The problem is not the colleges. It is the attitudes of the students and their parents.

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Unfortunately, I don’t see this getting any better. There are a number of causes, but one that hasn’t been mentioned yet is that there is no real cap on the number of colleges that a student can apply to. Without such a cap, it is to a student’s advantage to apply to as many as possible, especially at elite levels.

Meanwhile, in the UK, students can only apply to 5 programs, and only one can be at either Oxford or Cambridge. Because there is a cap on the number of applications, Oxford has an acceptance rate of 17.5%, while Cambridge’s is closer to 22%. They know that every application they get is serious, as those who are borderline are not likely to waste an application on an Oxbridge spot.

Compare this to the US, where Harvard had a 3.47% acceptance rate this past year (which was largely due to the pandemic, but it was 4.4% before). The acceptance rates are much more reasonable for early action/decision, because of a cap on the number of applications one can make (in most cases, just the one).

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I have to disagree. The matter of deserving admission is having the qualities that meet the expectations of the school. Of course, that doesn’t mean that one should feel ENTITLED to acceptance, especially due to the competition of the school. I think you assumed that I meant deserving acceptance over another qualified student, but I instead mean it as meeting the expectations for admission to deserve a spot. My whole argument is that admissions nowadays makes it so the VAST majority of people who DESERVE admission to a certain school (specifically “top” ones), meaning they have met/exceeded the expectations of the school, are turned away.

What I do agree on is your latter point. I regret any decision that I made purely for the sake of “looking good for colleges.”

In terms of your last point, I don’t believe the blame is an either/or situation. Yes, students and parents contribute to making “top” schools ridiculously competitive, but the colleges promote it too. They are not blameless.

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Excellent points. It is so common for students to apply to 15 of the same schools (Ivies, UCLA, UCB, Stanford, NYU, etc.), making the applicant pools at each of these HUMUNGOUS.

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THAT is the problem, too many are applying to too few spots. There are 24,000 high schools in the US. That means there is at a minimum 48,000 Valedictorians and Salutatorians. Harvard and Stanford each have fewer than 2000 first time freshman spots.

It’s a simple math game and no one ever said students and parents have to play along. My son didn’t and he had the stats to be very competitive. Instead of rankings he focussed on schools that started first year in his major, where all classes including labs and discussions were professor taught and job placement and salary stats were strong. See those metrics represented in the rankings? Neither do I.

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I disagree. I get countless pieces of “junk” mail - credit card offers, restaurant menus, car dealership ads, catalogs, charitable solicitations. I review the things that interest me and educate myself about what is what. I don’t send checks to organizations whose premise I don’t support, buy pants from a company that makes clothes that don’t fit me, fill out credit applications with higher interest rates than what I already have, etc. My D did not apply or visit every school that sent her mail. The postcards/mailings are just ads that generate business. Students are not obligated to support them with applications.

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Great point! My son got mail from a lot of schools, but no one more than Vandy. They started spamming him in the 9th grade. He was offered a free app at Rice. He applied to neither.

Fair point. I received numerous catalogues from UChicago for example, but did not apply because I had no interest in the school. However, schools use much more than junk mail to attract more applicants.

Anecdotally, I know of three friends at my school who applied to Harvard after receiving an email from them advertising their new programs. They weren’t going to apply there before, but figured they had a chance given that they got an email from the Harvard admissions team. They all got rejected this year. Cornell sent an email to one of my friends saying “we think you would be a very strong candidate for admission at our school.” He applied. Rejected.

Schools will offer to extend deadlines and waive fees in order to get more applicants, only so they can reject those apps. My college counselor has spoken with admissions officers who admit that this was a strategy they utilized to deflate their acceptance rate (which, as we covered, increases their ranking/desirability).

Another recent example is the test-optional movement. I would argue that schools would be less inclined to extend their TO policies from this year if they didn’t see a surge in application numbers.

These are just a few of the strategies colleges use to keep their admit rate down.

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That is reason enough to avoid those schools.

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Absolutely. Unfortunately, most folks are not aware of these strategies being used. The admissions process is unfortunately a very obscured system. It absolutely ought to be brought more to light. That’s why I absolutely love “Who Gets in and Why.” It provides a detailed depiction of something that is normally so mysterious. Highly recommend that book.

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