As acceptance rates to the country’s most selective universities fall to all-time lows each year, more elite schools have stopped promoting key admissions data, including acceptance numbers and demographic breakdowns.
This year, three Ivy League schools — the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, and Princeton — declined to release admissions data on the day acceptance letters were sent out, a trend Stanford started in 2018. Cornell first stopped publicizing its data in 2020.
Schools are required by the federal government to report admissions data each year — but the numbers come out months after admissions decisions, buried in a Department of Education documents and Common Data Set filings.
In August 2018, as future 2023 college graduates began filling out applications, Stanford University announced it would not publish its admissions data when decisions would be released. The year prior, the school’s acceptance rate was just 4.3 percent — the lowest in the country.
“The main result we observe is stories that aim to identify which universities experience the most demand and have the lowest admit rates,” Stanford Provost Persis Drell said in the 2018 announcement. “That is not a race we are interested in being a part of.”
But two years later, Cornell announced it would also stop publicizing its data, beginning with the class of 2024, for which it only published early decision numbers.
Harvard has continued to release its admissions data — including this March, when the College accepted a record-low 3.19 percent of applicants. Asked about the school’s policies, Harvard College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote that the school has “made no decisions regarding sharing this information.”
The elite institutions that have stopped publicizing data all cited the effect the numbers can have on prospective applicants, given increased selectivity.
“Neither prospective students nor the University benefit from the admissions process being boiled down in headlines to a single statistic like the admission rate,” Princeton University’s Dean of Admissions Karen Richardson wrote in a column earlier this month. “We do not want to discourage prospective students from applying to Princeton because of its selectivity.”
But some admissions consultants remain skeptical of the true motivations behind the shift.
“I understand the mental health perspective, but at the same time, it may be that some of these schools are looking to get more people to apply,” said Dan Lee, co-founder of Solomon Admissions Consulting.
Lee said “elite universities are always trying to increase the applicant pool every year” due to “institutional objectives.”
“Because of that, this may simply just be a method they’re experimenting with to potentially get more applicants next year,” he said.
Lee said he thinks the move may be a move on the part of the schools to see if “more people will apply as a result of not being turned off by the 2, 3, 4 percent acceptance rate.”
Spokespeople from Princeton, Penn, Stanford, and Cornell did not respond to requests for comment about the claim.
Phillip Trout, a college counselor at Minnetonka High School in Minnesota who formerly served as president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he doesn’t “know of a good reason why a college or university would choose to stop announcing, or to be unwilling, to confirm their acceptance rates.”
“But I can see why it is that this could occur,” Trout said. “A college like Stanford or Princeton or Cornell, perhaps, doesn’t want to appear to be elitist or unapproachable.”
“Some of these acceptance rates are just ridiculously low,” he said.
College admissions experts said influential annual rankings may influence the change.
“I think it is more around the optics of prestige,” said Anna Ivey, founder of Anna Ivey Admissions Counseling who formerly ran the University of Chicago Law School’s admissions office.
Lee said applicants often put more stock in schools’ rankings than the strength of their particular programs.
“One thing we encounter a lot is a lot of students are simply just brainwashed by the rankings,” Lee said. “It doesn’t matter whether you tell them that a certain school is actually much better for computer science than a higher-ranked school overall, they’ll still want to go to the higher-ranked school.”
Trout, the former NACAC president, echoed the sentiments, saying that colleges take pride in the number of students who apply.
“Totally driven by rankings,” Trout said. “Colleges and universities benefit greatly from moving up the chain.”
Despite schools’ claims that the shift was made in an effort to decrease stress among prospective applicants, some students and consultants said a lack of transparency will be unhelpful.
“Knowing doesn’t necessarily change many things, but it does give you a sense of comfort, being given that extra information,” said Omenma P. Abengowe, a student in Harvard's newly-admitted Class of 2026. “Having that being taken away just kind of feels strange.”
Ryan D. Garcia, another accepted student, concurred.
“I 100 percent wish they would release that data,” said Garcia. “The unknown to me would scare me the most.”
Trout said publishing acceptance rates can be helpful to students.
“I think announcing and sharing the data in a transparent way is helpful, and I think it serves students,” he said. “I do not know that it, in any way, alleviates or lessens stress.”
Consultants praised Harvard’s move to continue publicizing its acceptance rates, citing the importance of transparency.
“I think Harvard is doing the right thing by releasing its acceptance rates,” Lee said. “Just being transparent about what the actual acceptance rate is is always going to be helpful to students.”
Aditya Tummala, another admitted student, said some schools’ decision to not promote admissions data may be more of a “play to publicity.”
“I don’t think it really has an effect pragmatically,” Tummala said. “I think you may as well release the acceptance rates, get a little more transparency — that’s always nice.”
Lee said elite institutions often move in sync regarding admissions.
“Princeton, UPenn, Cornell are testing this out, and other institutions are going to look at that and see what the impact of that policy has on the number of applicants next year,” he said. “Based on that, they will assess whether this is a good idea for them as well.”
Though the data is still made available through the federal government and the Common Data Set later in the year, Ivey said the change will impact applicants who “aren’t already savvy about this process.”
“There’s a fair amount of cynicism among applicants about holistic admissions because it does look like such a big black box,” Ivey said. “And anything that makes it more of a black box by intent? I think that's going in the wrong direction.”
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