Fifty years ago, Harvard sent acceptance letters to 20 percent of roughly 6,700 applicants to the Class of 1969. By 2006, that figure had dropped to 9.7 percent for the class of 2010 and since then has continued on a downward trend overall, reaching a record-low 5.3 percent acceptance rate earlier this month.
According to admissions experts, the historic decline in admissions rates will continue and has been driven by students applying to larger numbers of colleges, as well as universities stepping up recruitment efforts to grow their application pools.
“I think that colleges are trying to diversify in a lot of different ways, and that adds students to the pool,” said Bari Norman, co-founder of Expert Admissions. “What places like Harvard are doing is reaching out to people who wouldn’t have considered applying to Harvard,” Norman said, adding that she thinks the acceptance rate decline will continue.
While Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 has speculated that the Admissions Office’s use of a new low-income student outreach program called Harvard College Connection may have contributed to a larger pool of applicants than in previous years, he said the university’s recruiting methods do not target unrealistic applicants.
“It’s counterproductive for us to encourage people into the pool who don’t have a chance of getting in,” he said in a recent interview. “We’ve been very careful to make sure that the [search list] is a good list.”
David Mainero, director of operations at admissions consultancy InGenius Prep, also said he thinks the admissions rate is likely to stay on a donward slope.
"Top colleges are not substantially increasing the size of their incoming classes, and more students are applying to college every year," Mainero said. "International applications will continue to skyrocket, and domestic applications will steadily rise.”
Anna Ivey, founder of the college admissions consulting firm Ivey Consulting, said overzealous recruiting to drum up a large application pool causes some colleges to “end up being like car dealers,” but agreed with Fitzsimmons that Harvard’s recruitment strategy is relatively conservative.
Still, Parke P. Muth—former associate dean of admissions at the University of Virginia who now runs a college consulting business—predicted the University would continue to expand its outreach programs and broaden the applicant pool, and said that the declining acceptance rate shows no signs of slowing.
“Harvard has the impossible task, because if they get more applications, people are going to condemn them, but if they don’t get more applications, especially from low-income kids, they’ll also get condemned,” he said. “But are great students all over the world and U.S., so why not encourage them?”
Experts also pointed to broader trends in higher education and an emphasis on rankings among top schools.
“Schools are in competition, and they’re after ranking rights about who’s the most competitive school in the country to get into,” Muth said. “The reputation you’re the most selective, elite school is going to help you come out No. 1 or 2 in the U.S. rankings.”
The Common Application, used by over 500 colleges, has consolidated the application process, expanding applicant pools and driving down acceptance rates, according to Norman.
“The Common Application makes the process more manageable and it also makes it easier for students to apply to more schools,” she said. “Despite the fact that I don’t always advise it, students will throw in extra schools because it’s easy to apply when they have an essay that they can tweak or there’s no additional essay.”
Ivey, for her part, compared applying to a large number of schools to “throwing spaghetti on the wall, hoping something sticks.”
“That to me is a sign that they’re not being very thoughtful in terms of what they want out of the experience, and of their competitiveness,” she said. “Submitting a thoughtful application for 12 schools is actually very time-consuming.”
However, Muth said he knows one student who applied to 50 colleges in search of the best financial aid, and he encourages lower-income students to apply to a higher number of colleges because “it’s really unpredictable in terms of how aid is going to be packaged.”
—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.
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