In the current race to the bottom that is the acceptance rates of elite colleges, Stanford has taken top prize—admitting a lower percentage of applicants than Harvard for the fourth year in a row.
Stanford announced last month that it accepted only 4.69 percent of nearly 44,000 hopefuls who applied to its Class of 2020, according to the Stanford Daily. Harvard accepted 5.2 percent of more than 39,000 applicants.
College admissions professionals speculated the difference could have been due to Stanford’s appeal to international students.
“It’s not that students perceive Harvard as an inferior school in any way to Stanford,” David C. Mainiero, co-founder and director of operations at InGenius Prep, said, citing his personal experience working with applicants from China.
But, according to Mainiero, international students may view Stanford as more connected to innovations in technology and business.
“The allure of Silicon Valley brings a lot more prestige to Stanford,” he said.
“I think that where Stanford finds an advantage against Harvard is that Stanford does a better job marketing itself abroad,” Mainiero added.
Still, some experts cautioned that admissions statistics should be taken with a grain of salt.
“From the outside, it doesn’t look like a material difference in any way to be half a percentage point different,” Anna Ivey, founder of the admissions consulting firm Ivey Consulting, said. “Realistically I wouldn’t call it a difference at all. I would call it neck and neck.”
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Stanford’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Richard H. Shaw expressed concern that the public pays too much attention to figures like acceptance rates.
“It just diverts everybody’s attention from the fact that we took 2,000-plus kids that are magnificent,” he told the Post. “My feeling is, what’s the difference between 7 percent and 4 percent? It’s all very competitive. If you look at Harvard’s number, Penn’s, Princeton’s, or any number of institutions, they’re all quite competitive.”
Experts also agreed that while this year’s record-low acceptance rates at both Harvard and Stanford drew public attention, the statistic might not be indicative of the quality of the institutions.
“Even low acceptance rates aren’t necessarily badges of honor,” Ivey said. “It doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the applicants, because you turned most people away.”
Other metrics could potentially better reflect the schools’ strengths. Mainiero proposed the percentage of admitted students choosing to matriculate as a measurement, also known as the yield. Parke P. Muth, a former associate dean of admissions and director of international admissions at the University of Virginia, suggested higher graduation rates signal more robust institutions.
Regardless of the importance of acceptance rates at top universities, some experts agreed that the downward trend of the admittance percentages is unlikely to reverse anytime soon.
Muth cited increased efforts on the part of colleges to recruit potential students, including members of low-income and otherwise underrepresented populations, as a reason for the high number of applicants—and thus the low acceptance rate.
“The acceptance rates are going to continue to drop because schools are doing a good job of publicizing how they do things well that other schools don’t,” he said.
Shaw, Stanford Associate Dean and Director of Admission Colleen Lim, and Harvard Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 all declined to comment for this article.
—Staff writer Aidan F. Langston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @AidanLangston.
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