Applying to U.S. Colleges and Universities: How competitive is it really?

by Grant Calder, Director of College Counseling

Thirty years ago, with the exception of a couple of highly specialized schools, virtually no institutions admitted less than 10% of their applicants. Now about 20 do. For a certain segment of the population, the extensive media coverage of “endlessly dropping admit rates” can make it feel as though getting into college has never been tougher.

Today, there are roughly 50 colleges and universities that admit less than 20% of their applicants. The number of institutions in that range has almost doubled in a generation But the less-than-30% admit rate bracket, the less-than-40%, and the-less-than 50% brackets have not filled in behind them. The vast majority of the 2800 or so four-year institutions admit most of their applicants.

Thirty years ago, college admit rates were somewhat more smoothly distributed across the range of schools from less than 10% to 100% (open enrollment). Now, more than 2000 colleges and universities admit three out of four applicants or more, while the aforementioned 50 admit one in five or less.

And for those colleges and universities already struggling to fill seats, the demographic data does not provide any reason to think the situation will improve. More than ever, more colleges are looking for students and willing to discount their prices dramatically in order to attract them. Some institutions are making wholesale reductions in tuition rates. One New England recently announced a 62% drop in tuition for the coming year. And those with the most money are also competing with each other to offer the most need-based financial aid. One of the Ivies announced earlier this year it will be free for (most) families making less than $100,000. 

The best general advice for seniors is to apply “early and often” (not counting early decision) and then wait until spring to consider offers of admission and costs at each institution before making a final choice.

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