Divided We Learn

Good news for college applicants: Getting in is easier than they think

… or than many colleges and universities want them to know

Despite what many high school seniors think, getting into a good college is likely to get even easier in the future

“Record Number of Applications Flood Area Colleges”

“Applications for the Class of 2021 Are Seriously Exploding”

“UCLA Receives More Than 100,000 Freshman Applications”

Headlines like these strike fear in the hearts of high school seniors and their parents every year around this time.

But behind the tales of teary-eyed applicants who didn’t make the cut is the reality that, with the exception of a tiny handful of extremely selective schools, getting into a good college today is easier — not harder — than many students realize. And it is likely to get easier still in the years ahead.

That means students and their parents often can negotiate for more financial aid from colleges that are secretly struggling to fill seats.

It’s also important because the perception that college is harder to get into than it actually is discourages some people from even bothering to apply, research shows, or steers them toward lower-quality institutions with poor graduation rates when they could have been accepted to much better schools.

Dayeel Dauphine was one of those people, at first. The son of Haitian immigrants, he grew up in a single-parent household where money was scarce. “I felt like a lost cause,” he recalled. “College definitely was not on my to-do list.” Instead, he said, his goal when he entered high school in Greenacres, Florida, was just to graduate and “immediately make money.”

Dauphine’s story would have a happy ending. And the perception that college is beyond reach for students like him is contradicted by the numbers.

Only 5 percent of students go to colleges and universities considered “highly” or “most” competitive and 9 percent to “very competitive” ones, the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education found.

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“There are about 200 schools that are hard to get into and another 1,800 that are easy to get into,” said Marcia Monma, a college search consultant in Whidbey Island, Washington. “And there are tons of great schools among the 1,800.”

Monma said that 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.

While Stanford might admit fewer than 5 percent of applicants and Harvard slightly more than 5 percent, four out of five private, nonprofit colleges and nearly nine out of 10 public ones accept at least 50 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

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.

The number of high school graduates peaked in 2013, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education reports, and is projected to remain below that level until at least 2023. The biggest drop is expected this spring, when there will be about 2.3 percent, or 81,000, fewer people than last year graduating from high schools nationwide.

Even with a smaller pool of potential competitors, however, students aren’t taking any chances. Nearly 29 percent of them applied to eight or more colleges in 2015, according to the UCLA survey — more than twice as many as their predecessors did 10 years earlier.

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That is being driven in part by the ease of applying to colleges today. The Common Application, or Common App, lets students fill out a single online form that’s accepted by nearly 700 schools worldwide. Four-year schools received an average of 94 percent of their applications online in the fall 2013, the most recent period for which the figures are available, up from 49 percent in 2005, the National Association for College Admission Counseling reported.

Anxiety plays a role, too.

“Because there’s so much fear and worry, even the most talented kids are applying to more colleges, said Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and publisher of the college comparison website Cappex.com.

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.

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As selective as they’d like prospective students to believe they are, colleges and universities have been watching enrollment decline for five years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Last year alone, it dropped 1.4 percent, or by about 270,000 students, at institutions nationwide, the center’s executive research director, Doug Shapiro, said.

Part of that is due to the shrinking supply of 18-year-olds and to families’ concerns about the high cost, and relative value, of college. At the same time, the economic recovery and low unemployment mean that fewer older students are returning to campus, Shapiro said.

The unrelenting rise in applications, meanwhile, has made it harder for colleges to predict their “yields” — the percentage of students they admit who will ultimately enroll. As students apply to more colleges, Clinedinst noted, they may be accepted by a greater number and have more options when the time comes to make a decision.

Clinedinst’s organization releases an annual list each May of colleges and universities that still have space, often because they haven’t met their enrollment targets. Last year’s list included more than 300 institutions, among them such big names as the University of Utah, University of Arizona and Oregon State.

Not that colleges are entirely blameless for all of this. Some have encouraged the applications boom, with its resulting effect on their ability to predict yields, by urging marginally qualified students to apply. Known as “recruit to deny,” this practice makes them appear more selective and boosts their standings in some college rankings.

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.

Who loses this race?

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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, there are success stories. One is Dauphine, that Florida son of Haitian immigrants. During his freshman year of high school, he was invited to join a college-preparedness program called Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID. With its encouragement, he raised his grades and began to see college as a possibility. By the time he was a senior, he had applied to and been accepted by Cornell, Emory, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Virginia.

Today the 19-year-old is at Notre Dame, studying mechanical engineering. His education is being paid for by the Gates Millennium Scholars program, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which also supports The Hechinger Report).

“If anything,” the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Shapiro said, “there are more colleges looking for more students.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.

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