Is Getting Into College Getting Easier?

In a couple weeks, high school seniors around the world will learn the outcomes of their college admissions journey. I’ve been working with seniors since the late 1980s and every year I see the same thing: shock and surprise — both good and bad.

Applicants who felt confident about their chances at certain schools are shocked that they are denied, or worse, waitlisted. Others are surprised (“floored” may be a good way to put it) that they are accepted to schools where they deemed their chances nil. The pendulum swings both ways.

However, veterans of the college admissions world, savvy parents who have been through the process already with their first born, longtime observers of related Internet forums such as College Confidential’s, and those involved at a professional level, such as yours truly, are generally highly conservative about doling out “chances” estimates to aspiring collegians. There are just too many variables to prognosticate admissions based on “fuzzy” data.

As a subscriber to a conservative (a.k.a. cautious) predictive approach, I was surprised (maybe even shocked) to see this headline: Good news for college applicants: Getting in is easier than they think. The punchline subtext says, “… or than many colleges and universities want them to know.” “Say what?!” I said to myself.

This news comes from The Hechinger Report (“Covering Innovation & Inequality in Education”). I was led to the report by a University Herald story that headlined the obvious: College Admissions: Getting Into College Is Now Easier, A Surprise For Most Students.

Okay, then. What’s the deal here? Let’s excavate the contentions. The Herald says, in part:

“… What many students do not realize is that getting into a good college today is a lot easier , and will become so in the coming years, according to the Hechinger Report. It is important to correct this mindset because it is one of the reasons why students do not bother to apply anymore or settle for lower quality schools, when they could have actually been accepted to much better institutions.

“If you want to attend college, pursue higher education and obtain a degree, you will certainly be able to do it, according to News&Record. The reality is that colleges and universities are not really that selective and even if there are those which are very hard-to-get-into institutions, they only comprise a very small percentage of the entire number of schools. There are still plenty of great schools to choose from.

“In fact, it will even be easier to get into college in the coming years as there will less high school graduates until 2023. And because there will be fewer high school graduates, colleges and universities will be fighting over these graduates and parents and families might get to finally have the negotiating power. That’s because these institutions compete with each other when it comes to the record number of applicants.

“The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Shapiro said that there’s actually going to be more colleges looking for students, so getting into is not something students should be worried about.”

Well, if I were a high school junior, I wouldn’t be filling my Common Application’s college slots with all Ivies, at least not just yet. Hechinger says:

“… A new Brookings study shows that most private, nonprofit colleges are not much harder to get into than state universities, based on the SAT or ACT scores of admitted applicants. Nearly 76 percent of freshmen in a national survey by UCLA said they were accepted by their first-choice college.

“If those odds sound good, demographic trends suggest they’re about to get even better. …”

“… So while the universities and colleges may be bragging about record numbers of applications, there are not record numbers of applicants, said Melissa Clinedinst, associate director of research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“This means that, if anyone should be worried these days, it’s the colleges.” …

“… Faced with all of these challenges, many smaller colleges have been forced to cut prices to seal the deal with students and their cost-conscious parents. In the fall of 2016, about half of small and moderate-sized private colleges and universities projected giving back at least half of their potential tuition revenue in the form of financial aid, according to the bond-rating agency Moody’s.

“It’s all part of the “arms race of selectivity,” said José Luis Santos, vice president of higher education policy and practice at The Education Trust.” …

“… The assumption that college is harder to get into than it actually is can be especially discouraging to students whose own parents didn’t go to college, or who attend public schools without savvy college counselors. They may not apply at all, or, if they do, choose schools that are of a lower caliber and more stingy with financial aid than others for which they’re perfectly qualified. In the college admissions world, there’s a term for that: ‘undermatching.’

“This has helped thwart efforts to make college more accessible to low-income families. Students whose parents are among the top 1 percent of earners are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League school or the University of Chicago, Duke, MIT or Stanford than students whose parents are among the bottom 20 percent, the Equality of Opportunity Project reported in January.” …

Still not convinced that it’s easier to get into college? Of course, it depends on which end of the telescope you’re looking through. Some College Confidential forum poster responded to my posting of this report:

– That is just not true, if we are talking about the top 100 institutions. This report doesn’t take into consideration that the number of foreign students went from 564,766 in 2005 to 1,043,839 in 2015.

– for those hyper competitive students who need an ivy or Stanford to give themselves (or their parents)validation. they bare a super heavy and unnecessary stress. if students actually went to the school that was the best fit for them most people would wind up and a school they have never thought of or possibly even heard of.

– So what? Just because you get in does not mean you can afford it. The cost of college is keeping kids away or searching out lesser schools. A middle class kid can most likely only afford the local CC or the city state school. The ability to get into a top school is not always the problem. Cost is. Very few can actually afford it. Some dive deep into debt but this is not necessarily wise.

– When did private school ever embrace those students? They were too expensive for my MC family way back in the dark ages of the early 90s. Don’t most MC kids go to public universities for undergrad, even now? I went to my state flagship and that was the norm for kids like me, who did quite well in high school but who didn’t come from wealthy families.

– Private schools charge what they charge because the demand is there. Plenty of rich and upper-middle-class folks in this country. And the tippy-top who care about getting the best can do so through fin aid. As for what can or should be done: Nothing? Why not public colleges or uni in Germany or through something like Harvard Extension School/University of London International? It’s not like attending private college is a birthright of every American . . .

– It’s hard to take the top-level article seriously when it is so badly written. And if you drill down to the cited report, it states: “while the most selective universities and colleges – those that accept less than 20 percent of applicants – have gotten even more competitive in recent years, the opposite is true for the much larger number that take between 20 percent and 40 percent.” So while the “most students” headline may be generally true, for those targeting the top schools (“those that accept less than 20 percent”) – which seems to be the majority of those who frequent this site – it is not.

So, lots to consider here, regardless of what your personal experience and/or prejudices about college admissions may be. From my perspective, I see the contention that admissions is getting easier from the fence-straddling view of “it depends.”

In my view, it depends on who you are and where you apply. Who you are would cover your applicant “profile.” That is, where you live, what school you attend, how much your family earns, your school curriculum, how well you write essays, your recommendations, test scores, GPA … Getting the picture?

Where you apply means, generally, what’s the overall acceptance rate of these schools? What are the early (EA/ED) acceptance rates? How well has your school done in placing its students in these schools? And so on.

If you are applying to a “top” school, it’s generally going to be harder for you to get in. The top schools are attracting more applicants these days, for a number of reasons — heavier recruiting, easier application procedures, etc. Thus, your percentage chances decline.

So-called “lower-tier” schools are struggling to fill all their beds. Consequently, their selection criteria are not nearly as discriminating as the schools “above” them. They tend to be much more welcoming of the more general pool of applicants. In other words, you won’t hear an admissions officer from one of these schools tell a tour group that “most of you won’t get in here,” as do some of the “elites.” (Too many quotation marks!)

Bottom line: Be sure to know your limitations as an applicant. It’s all about the match.

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Be sure to check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.