At last fall’s Harvard-Yale football game, students scattered throughout the Harvard section wore mesh jerseys with the slogan, “We are the 6 percent.”
The jerseys referred to the percentage of applicants accepted to Harvard’s class of 2015: The school had admitted 6.2 percent of its applicants, while Yale’s admissions rate was 7.35 percent — the lowest rates the two universities had ever posted.
Prefrosh who arrive on campus today for the kickoff of Bulldog Days, the University’s three-day welcoming event for admitted students, have just emerged from a college admissions process that was even more competitive. Both Harvard’s and Yale’s acceptance rates fell yet again this year to 5.9 percent and 6.8 percent, respectively.
Over a dozen college guidance counselors and admissions experts interviewed said they expect admissions rates at the nation’s most elite institutions will continue to slope downward for the foreseeable future.
“The big question is, ‘When does it stop?’ Will we see a day that a school like Yale or Harvard only admits 1 percent of the applicant pool?” said James Ouwuachi, a college guidance counselor at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Ga. “How as a society are we going to interpret that?”
As increasing selectivity makes the college admissions process more intense for high school students, some admissions experts worry that the low acceptance rates might deter some students from applying to Yale and its peer schools while attracting those who value prestige over a fulfilling college experience.
GROWTH IN APPLICATIONS
Over the past decade, acceptance rates at the country’s most selective schools have been cut roughly in half.
This drop, which culminated in record lows this year at six of eight schools in the Ivy League as well as at Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is largely due to an increase in college applications nationwide, admissions experts said.
“If applications go up, admit rates must go down,” Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel said in an email last month. “It’s a simple problem in long division.”
The population of 18-year-old Americans peaked in 2009, when the largest group of high school seniors in the nation’s history — 3.3 million — graduated and became eligible to enter college.
Though this number has decreased slightly over the past three years, the number is expected to begin rising again around 2015, according to projections published by the College Board, a nonprofit organization that administers college admissions exams.
At the same time, a spike in the number of international students applying to Yale and its peer schools has also inflated application counts. The Institute of International Education, a private nonprofit organization that releases data related to international education, found that the number of international students enrolled in American colleges increased by 5 percent in the 2010-’11 academic year to 723,277, a 32 percent increase over a decade ago.
Some higher education experts attributed the rise in international students to the growing middle class in East and South Asian countries and to generous financial aid policies offered at Yale and its peer schools. Over the past 10 years, the portion of Yale College students who receive need-based financial aid — which is offered without regard to citizenship — has risen from 39 percent to 57 percent.
“Very few institutions have the type of financial aid program that Yale does where you treat international students similarly to American students,” said Ronald Ehrenberg, director of Cornell’s Higher Education Research Institute. “At other schools, there’s often a fixed financial budget that doesn’t accommodate these students in the same way as American students, so there’s a huge pull from Ivy League schools that makes them more attractive to international folks.”
Admissions experts said another factor that has led to higher application numbers is the proliferation of the Common Application, which students can use to apply to its 456 member institutions, including Yale.
Chuck Hughes, president and founder of Road to College, a college admissions consulting service, said the ease of using the Common App is causing students to apply to a wider range of schools, even though many of these students may not have the credentials usually demanded by Ivy League institutions.
“I’m starting to see a scattershot approach: Kids don’t know where they’re going to get in, so they’re spreading their risk and applying to all the Ivies,” Hughes said. “I discourage that kind of behavior because there are demonstrable differences between these schools.”
Sarah Beyreis ’85 GRD ’94, director of college counseling at the private Cincinnati Country Day School, said the low admissions rates can be “somewhat beneficial” because they encourage students to consider schools beyond the Ivy League and other prestigious institutions such as Stanford and MIT, making students “better consumers in the college market.”
She added that the increase in applications to elite universities may be the result of “a hint of narcissism” on the part of high school students, who may hope to be among “the chosen few” accepted to the nation’s most selective schools.
“I believe you will always have a great demand for these particular schools that are household names,” Ouwuachi said. “We all know when we buy lottery tickets that our chances of winning are low, yet thousands of people buy them anyway.”
CHANGING THE ‘SOUL OF THE PLACE’?
But some admissions experts expressed concern that falling admissions rates may keep certain students from even applying to the nation’s most competitive institutions.
Hughes said a “psychological barrier” may drive away some students if admissions rates keep dropping, creating what he called a “why-bother effect.”
Zach Plyam ’16, a senior at Hunter College High School in New York City who will attend Yale next fall, said since his high school restricts students from applying to more than eight private colleges, he had to be “very cautious” when crafting his college list and research his options thoroughly. He added that one of his friends would have applied to Yale if not for its low acceptance rate and the eight-school rule.
“My friends and I couldn’t just blindly apply to really selective schools to see whether we got in, as this would limit our chances to apply to safer schools,” Plyam said.
Brenzel said although many speculate that Yale’s low admissions rates may discourage potential students from applying, he said “it is clear” that the number of applications have continued to grow. He added that the increase in applications has not contributed to a stronger applicant pool within all demographics.
“We do not see even growth in the strength of the overall Yale pool, though we do see increased strength within the subgroups on which we have focused hardest: underrepresented minorities and the science and engineering candidates,” he said.
Five experts interviewed said the low admissions rates may cause some qualified applicants to matriculate at schools less selective than Yale since they may view those schools as better fitted to their interests. But low acceptance rates would likely still encourage students who prioritize the “Yale brand” and Yale’s “elite image” to apply, they said.
“Here’s the danger: Maybe the odds won’t scare off the seekers of the brand, but it might scare off some of the more interesting, intellectual kids or the kids with genuine kindness, because that usually gets lost in the admission process,” said Jon Reider, a college guidance counselor at San Francisco University High School who worked as an admissions officer at Stanford for 15 years. “In other words, the numbers might be gorgeous, and the Board of Trustees will be smiling, but somehow the soul of the place will have begun to drain away.”
Hughes said decreasing acceptance rates may require admissions offices to expend extra effort recruiting qualified students who are discouraged by the low chances of admission.
“If [admissions rates] get to 3, 4 percent, these schools are going to have a marketing issue,” Hughes said. “They’re going to have to do a lot of massaging in the pre-application stage. They may have to go to certain demographics where really good kids are not submitting applications anymore because they think it’s almost impossible to get in.”
Ouwuachi, the guidance counselor from the Westminster Schools who was formerly an admissions officer at Vanderbilt University, said changing incentives for students created by shrinking acceptance rates will require admissions officers to think “more critically” when evaluating applicants. He added that admissions officers need to consider themselves as “sociologists, educators and anthropologists” to ensure that admitted students reflect the values of their schools.
THE VALUE OF ELITENESS
For many students interviewed, the low acceptance rates at Yale and its peer universities serve as signs of institutional strength and prestige, and become markers of personal success for those who are admitted.
Robbie Flatow ’16, a senior at Regis High School in New York City who was admitted early to Yale, said earning admission at a school with a low acceptance rate is often “a point of individual pride.”
“The admissions rate of a school is probably still the single statistic or piece of information used most by students to gauge how good a school is,” he said.
Still, the majority of 20 high school students and college freshmen interviewed said the admission figures were not determining factors in their college decisions, though they said they used the rates to measure the relative quality of universities.
Martin Kiik, a freshman at Harvard who was accepted to Yale, said admissions rates did not affect which colleges he applied to or his ultimate decision to matriculate at Harvard.
“I wouldn’t advise anyone to look at these percentages as a metric to decide between colleges,” Kiik said. “There might be something to be said for the wisdom of the crowds, but at the end of the day, it is you who has to spend the next four years living there, not the average applicant.”
Admissions rates can also affect students’ evaluations of universities through their influence on university rankings such as the U.S. News and World Report’s annual list of the nation’s “Best Colleges,” which 17 of 20 students interviewed said they consulted when looking at colleges. Yale ranked third on this year’s list of national universities, behind Harvard and Princeton, which tied for first.
Robert Morse, director of data and research for U.S. News and World Report, said a measure of “student selectivity” — which weighs acceptance rates, admissions tests scores for matriculating students and the proportion of enrolled freshmen who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes — counts for 15 percent of a school’s ranking.
Because of the importance that both prospective students and the media place upon admission rates, many colleges seek to lower their acceptance rates by encouraging large numbers of unqualified students to apply, Ehrenberg said.
Brenzel told the News last year said the University’s Admissions Office has not pursued a strategy of soliciting more applications merely to inflate Yale’s statistics.
“We have… been able to exercise ethical restraint in conducting outreach to students of all backgrounds who are very unlikely to be offered admission here, while at the same time being very aggressive in our targeted outreach efforts,” he said. “I have been particularly happy with the increases we are seeing in applications from the most competitive minority students, low-income students, science students and international students.”
THE HIGH SCHOOL ‘PRESSURE COOKER’
Though the influx of applications may be requiring admissions offices to change how they evaluate and recruit students, it may be the high school hopefuls who ultimately bear the brunt of the added pressure.
Hughes, who has directed Road to College since 2003 and was a senior admissions officer at Harvard for five years before founding his business, said he now regularly consults with the parents of middle school students, who ask about their children’s chances of getting into elite colleges. Hughes added that he thinks there is “not as much room for high-level all-around students” at these schools as there was in the past.
“When I talk to my clients, what they understand is that the nature of the competition is changing,” he said. “You need to be a strong student from the start. Families are calling me earlier to talk about what kind of student their child has to be.”
When presented with admissions statistics about the nation’s most elite universities, high school students often strategize about what classes or activities will make them appear unique or desirable to college admissions officers, guidance counselors said.
Simone Policano ’16, a senior at Hunter College High School who was accepted early to Yale and will attend in the fall, said students at her school feel like they are “fighting an overwhelming battle” in the college admissions process and that they feel compelled to do “whatever looks best for college.”
“In a place like Hunter, it’s kind of a pressure cooker,” she said. “You know where everyone is applying, even if you don’t want to know. You walk through the hallways and that’s what people are talking about.”
Zach Edelman ’16, a senior at Scarsdale High School who will also attend Yale next year, said the fact that elite universities deny so many qualified applicants suggests that the college admissions process has an element of “arbitrariness,” which leads them to “spend exorbitant amounts of time and money” preparing for college.
Beyreis, the college counselor from Cincinnati, said the limited chances of being admitted to elite universities has led students to research, visit and apply to more schools in order to ensure they are accepted “somewhere they would feel happy.”
Still, no matter how low the admissions rate goes, many students will continue to play “the lottery” of college admissions.
“Since none of us really know what makes admissions choose one student over another, there’s not very much to lose but a lot to gain if things go well,” Katherine Miller ’16, a senior at Hunter College High School who was accepted early to Yale. “So why not take the chance?”