UP CLOSE | Admissions: How low can Yale go?

When Sarah Beyreis ’85 GRD ’94 applied to Yale College, she faced the toughest odds of admission in the University’s history. Beyreis was one of 11,253 students vying for a spot in Yale’s freshman class. That year, Yale set an unparalleled admit rate of 20 percent, undercutting the record set a decade earlier.

But since Beyreis applied in 1980, Yale has set 16 new record-low acceptance rates, 11 of them in the last 14 years alone.

Beyreis now sits on the other side of the desk, working as the director of college counseling at the private Cincinnati Country Day School. When advising students, she sometimes describes her odds of Yale admission to show students how much the world has changed since she applied.

“It couldn’t be more different,” said Beyreis.

Yale’s acceptance rate has been falling for many reasons — from the rising number of college applicants nationwide to Yale’s decision to begin accepting the Common Application seven years ago — and is unlikely to rise anytime soon, 14 college counselors and experts said in interviews.

Still, this statistic may not tell the whole story, Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said.

“My general sense is that the number of students at the most competitive end of the spectrum for admission has changed less than the attraction or appeal of putting in an application to see what happens,” he said in a recent interview. “That is, the application base may be swelling, but it isn’t necessarily because you have a lot more students who are at the most highly qualified end of the applicant pool.”

And so, Brenzel said, Yale’s acceptance rate may not necessarily mean heightened selectivity.

“There’s a sense in which the acceptance rate makes it look like it’s harder and harder to get into Yale, but what does that mean exactly?” he said. “My sense is that it’s not getting harder and harder to get into Yale. It’s just a case that the applicant pool is swelling for understandable reasons.”

A ‘DRAMATIC’ FALL

Despite Brenzel’s advice not to focus on Yale’s admit rate, it is a difficult figure for high school students, their parents and college counselors to ignore, especially because Yale’s acceptance rate is less than half of what it was a decade ago.

“It’s stunning during my 25 years in college counseling to see these rates falling so dramatically,” said Frank Sachs, director of college counseling at the Blake School in Minneapolis.

“Who would have thought 7 percent?” he added. “We were aghast when things were at 16 percent, and now we’re at half that.”

A recent spike in applications, which have more than doubled since 2000, has contributed to pushing down the acceptance rate. A total of 26,003 high school students sought spaces in this year’s freshman class, compared to the 12,887 who applied in fall 2000.

Brenzel attributed this increase to, among other factors, the trend of students applying to more and more colleges, an increasing attraction to highly ranked or prestigious colleges, and growing awareness of Yale’s revamped financial aid program. But there are other forces at work. Not only has the number of students applying to Yale been rising, but the number of students admitted to Yale has simultaneously decreased.

Since 1995, the number of acceptance offers extended by Yale has dropped by more than 550, or 22.3 percent. Yale has been accepting fewer students because there has been a “substantial rise” in the proportion of admitted students who decide to matriculate, Brenzel said.

One result of this phenomenon, Brenzel said, is that many schools that typically sent a few students to Yale each year have begun to see fewer and fewer of their students admitted. Counselors and alumni often raised this issue with Brenzel when he first assumed his post in 2005, and he said he can easily understand their perspectives.

“You’re seeing more and more people applying, but Yale is taking fewer of them,” he said. “It makes people feel like Yale doesn’t care about their [town or school].”

This sentiment was exacerbated by the fact that yield rates at Harvard and Princeton universities held steady over that same period, Brenzel said. This meant that, unlike Yale, Harvard and Princeton could admit the same number of students as in previous years, since the proportion of students matriculating at those schools remained unchanged.

But the tables have turned.

“Because of the early action changes at Princeton and Harvard, the yield dropped at all three schools,” he said. “Sure enough, I’ve discovered that people don’t seem to be calling as much this year.”

Harvard Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath said Harvard College’s yield rate remained high after the university eliminated early admissions, and Harvard has not increased the total number of admitted students as a result, she said. Still, Harvard’s initial yield rate did fall two percentage points, from 78 percent, at that time, and the university admitted about an additional 150 students from its wait list compared to the previous year. Princeton’s yield rate fell that year as well, and the university subsequently admitted more than 85 students from its wait list, the Daily Princetonian reported in May 2008.

‘LIKELY TO REMAIN LOW’

But with thousands of Yale hopefuls bound to be disappointed this year, a dozen college counselors interviewed all agreed that Yale’s flood of applications is unlikely to start receding anytime soon.

Common sense would suggest that because the peak of the demographic boom of high school graduates passed in the spring of 2008, there will be fewer high school graduates applying to college in the future. But Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School, and many of his colleagues see things differently.

“The end of the demographic boom is meaningless,” Reider said, explaining that the number of high school graduates trends downward on a gentle slope. A 2008 report from the Department of Education projects that the number of high school graduates nationwide is likely to decrease by only about 5,000 this spring compared to last year.

Yale’s acceptance rate remained relatively flat or rose after the generation boom subsided in the early 1980s, when it became time for Generation X to apply to college. But this time around, acceptance rates at Yale are not likely to see much of a rise, said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“There are trends present now that weren’t present in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, including the Internet, several options for standardized applications as well as [improved] financial aid packages,” he said. “There are several trends that converge now that keep acceptance rates lower for longer. They’re likely to remain low.”

Thanks to the ease of submitting applications online, Hawkins said many students are applying to a larger number of colleges than they did in the past, a trend unlikely to reverse itself. Yale began accepting the Common Application in 2002 and began accepting applications online in 2003. In both years Yale set record-low acceptance rates after receiving several hundreds of applications more than the previous year.

TARGETED RECRUITMENT

Despite the substantial rise in applications to Yale in recent years, Brenzel said the Admissions Office does not aim to draw more applications for the sake of drawing more applications. Rather, he said, Yale uses a targeted recruitment strategy that focus on attracting both low-income and science-oriented students, two demographics sought after by selective universities.

“We’re trying to find the strongest students of those groups and make sure they’re applying here, but overall, we don’t have as one of our objectives to increase our total application count,” he said.

As part of this strategy, Yale has broadened the range of schools from which it recruits its students, said Nancy Beane, college counselor at the private Westminster Schools in Atlanta.

“The recruiting net is so much wider now for students,” she said. “There are students coming from international areas, rural areas and inner cities” who previously would not have applied.

The demographics of Yale’s applicants likely shifted as the University began replacing its financial aid with grants instead of loans, said Sandy Bean, coordinator of the college and career center at the public Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in downtown Washington.

As a result, Yale’s high level of selectivity is not necessarily a bad thing, given that the University has been able to strengthen its economic and ethnic diversity in recent years, said Richard Kahlenberg, an expert on education and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

The impact of such efforts has been visible in Yale’s most recent freshman classes. The incoming class of 2012 was Yale’s most socioeconomically diverse, with 12.3 percent of freshmen receiving federally funded Pell grants, rarely given to students with family incomes above $40,000.

But while Yale’s recruitment efforts have successfully brought more low-income and science students to the University, many applicants wooed through Yale’s recruiting efforts fit neither of these profiles.

Contrary to common sense, Yale’s low admit rate may, in fact, be a self-perpetuating phenomenon. As Reider explained, because a Yale education is seen by many as “desirable and scarce, it becomes even more desirable.” Brenzel independently made the same observation when asked if he was worried that some applicants are intimidated by Yale’s low acceptance rate.

“If you see the acceptance rate continue to decline, the first thing you worry about is that some students would be motivated not to apply because it’s too hard to get in,” he said. “It seems as, if anything, the opposite is the case. The perception that is created by a lower acceptance rate seems to attract more applicants.”

NEW COLLEGES: NO PANACEA

When University President Richard Levin announced in July 2008 that the Yale Corporation had approved the expansion of Yale College, he emphasized the importance of Yale’s two new colleges on decreasing the admissions strain.

“Admissions officers agree that in each of the past several years we have denied admission to hundreds of applicants who would have been admitted ten years ago,” he wrote, adding that the University’s mission is to educate highly promising students from around the world. “Today, we have a long queue of highly qualified applicants who collectively would allow Yale to make an even greater contribution to society if more could be educated here.”

Yale expects to increase the size of its incoming freshman classes by roughly 15 percent once expansion is complete. And, because Yale can admit more students than would actually fit into the new colleges, given that not all admitted students matriculate, Brenzel said, “I get to spread around lots more Yale love.”

Although all 12 college counselors interviewed unanimously praised the decision to offer more spaces for Yale applicants, many noted that this additional “Yale love” is negligible in comparison to the hordes of students who apply.

“It’s a drop in the ocean,” Reider said.

If the new colleges were built tomorrow and Yale College expanded by 15 percent, or an additional 200 students in each incoming class, holding all other factors constant, Yale’s acceptance rate would increase to roughly 8.5 percent compared to 7.5 percent this year. But Toby Brewster, director of college counseling at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., said that if Yale makes more spaces available, it is only likely to attract even more high school students.

“The interest will follow the available spots, so I don’t know how much of an impact [Yale’s expanded enrollment] will have on the increased selectivity,” he said. “There’s not much these schools can do.”

Still, predicting Yale’s future acceptance rates remains more art than science; only three years ago Yale’s acceptance rate rose to 9.9 percent after five years of successive record-low rates. Each new year brings new uncertainty, Brenzel said, admitting he has no idea what will happen to Yale’s acceptance rate next year.

But just as students shouldn’t get hung up on a school’s acceptance rate, they also shouldn’t get hung up on attending one specific school, said Beane, counselor at the Westminster Schools.

“There are too many wonderful opportunities for you to get too focused on having to get into one school,” she said.

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