Admission Impossible?

Every spring, the media send a bolt of fear into the heart of the upper middle class. The message is clear: "Your children are never getting into a good college."

As Ivy League universities report -- once again -- that admissions rates have fallen to record lows, newspapers rush to publish stories documenting the increasingly "frenzied" (variants: "frantic," "brutal") competition among students vying for a coveted slot in an elite school. The stock characters include the tearful student -- dreams crushed under an avalanche of rejection letters -- the angry parent, the frenzied guidance counselor, and the college admissions official or other expert who notes with grateful wonder, "If I had to apply to my alma mater today, I couldn't get in."

There's just one problem: it's not true. The declining odds of getting into an elite college are mostly a statistical mirage, caused by confusion between college applicants and college applications.

From a student's perspective, the odds of getting into college are a function of two things: the number of qualified students who apply, and the number of slots that colleges make available. It's true that the number of prospective college students is growing, as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal all noted in nearly identical articles published recently. Driven by the baby-boom echo, the number of high school graduates jumped from 2.9 million in 2002 to 3.1 million in 2006, an increase of 8.4 percent.

But the number of spaces in elite colleges is increasing too, at a nearly identical rate. According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, the 60-odd colleges and universities rated "Most Competitive" by Barron's Guide to Colleges sent out 199,821 acceptance letters in 2002. In 2006, the number of "fat envelopes" had increased to 215,738, an 8.0 percent jump. As the nation has grown, its elite colleges have grown along with it.

Why, then, the high anxiety? Because college admissions scare stories aren't based on the overall ratio of admissions to applicants. They're based on the ratio of admissions to applications, as reported by individual colleges. And the number of applications to elite schools is skyrocketing, increasing 18.9 percent from 2002 to 2006.

When the number of applications grows faster than the number of applicants, it creates a false sense that admission standards are getting tighter. Imagine 20 students, each of whom applies to five schools and gets into two. Now imagine if the same students each applied to ten schools and got into two. The outcome for the students is the same: two acceptance letters. But the schools report lower admission rates, and the odds of admission seem worse.

This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in that hard-to-reach nirvana for striving parents and students: the Ivy League. While the number of acceptance letters mailed by Harvard, Princteon, et al increased 10.6 percent from 2002 to 2006 -- faster than the growth in high school graduates -- applications grew 28.6 percent during the same time. Thus, many Ivy League admission rates are at an all-time low.

There's little chance that the number of Ivy League-caliber students jumped by more than one-fourth in four years. Nor is it likely that a large number of super-smart students only recently and suddenly realized that a Harvard diploma is the ticket to the good life. Instead, two things are probably happening. First, there has likely been an increase in the number of unqualified students treating the Harvard application like a Powerball ticket. An Ivy League education can be worth millions of dollars over a lifetime. To take a shot at one, all you need is $65.00 and a dream.

Second, qualified students seem to be applying to more elite schools than they used to. Many of news articles actually note this. From The New York Times:

The third trend driving the frantic competition is that the average college applicant applies to many more colleges than in past decades. In the 1960s, fewer than 2 percent of college freshmen had applied to six or more colleges, whereas in 2006 more than 2 percent reported having applied to 11 or more, according to The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2006, an annual report on a continuing long-term study published by the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Multiple applications per student," [the director of public policy for the National Association of College Admission Counseling] said, "is a factor that exponentially crowds the college admissions environment."

One reason that students are filing more applications is the increasing use of the Common Application, a form that can be completed and filed via the Internet.

The Post makes the same point, noting that "many students apply to as many as a dozen schools, often the ones least likely to accept them." The Journal quotes an admissions dean blaming the Common Application for people filing "10, 15, 20 applications." But none of the papers note that the growing number of applications per student only makes the admissions environment seem more crowded. The distinction between the perception and reality of a tightening admissions environment is nowhere to be found.

That's not surprising, given how many people stand to benefit from the annual admissions scare story. For newspapers, it's an irresistible way to grab the attention of their affluent subscribers with college-age children. On a certain level, people like being told that their deepest anxieties are not only true, but front-page news.

For elite colleges, which are first and foremost in the business of selling status and exclusivity, it's invaluable free advertising. Once the 2007 admissions numbers were finalized, the Harvard News Office quickly announced "the lowest admit rate in Harvard's history," a fact dutifully repeated in the news stories, which also noted that Harvard's rate was the lowest (i.e. best) in the Ivy League.

The bottom line: Getting into an elite college is certainly difficult, particularly if you're not a legacy, scholarship athlete, or related to someone who recently donated a lot of money to the endowment. But it's not getting a whole lot more difficult -- despite what you read in the newspaper every year.