Acceptance rates at top colleges and universities are dropping every year. Business Student, a business education website, reported that acceptance rates at the top 50 schools fell from 35.9% in 2006 to 22.6% in 2018. And those trends only seem to be accelerating since Covid hit.
However, the trend isn’t universal. The Common App reports that 73% of its 914 member institutions admit more than 50% of all applicants. This is up from 69% in the 2014-2015 school year.
The craziest part of this trend is that the number of students enrolling in college has been steadily declining since 2010. How can declining enrollment fit together with lower acceptance rates? We dug into the numbers to understand the phenomenon.
Students Are Applying To More Schools
The driving factor behind declining acceptance rates at top schools is the growth in the number of applicants at these schools. Top schools which include major research universities and private liberal arts schools are seeing a massive growth in the size of their applicant pool. While the number of people applying to college remains steady, the number of people submitting applications to many top schools is growing.
The ease of applying to selective schools may be part of the story. According to research from the Common App, an application used by over 1000 member universities, the average number of schools a person applied to through Common App jumped 8% between 2019 and 2020. This was the highest individual growth year, but the trend towards students applying to more schools has been a growing trend for years. In 2013-2014, students submitted 4.63 college applications on average. In 2021-2022 that number grew to 6.22.
Not every school is seeing these huge gains. Nearly three out of four colleges still admit more than half of all students who apply.
However, the most selective schools are seeing more applications, and many of the applications are coming from top students. Top students (those with strong academic performance and high standardized test scores) are applying to more schools than typical high school graduates. That means top schools don’t have to accept such a high proportion of students to fill their incoming classes.
Test-Optional Accelerates The Trend
Test-optional refers to a trend where an applicant can decide whether to submit a standardized test score with their application. Historically, most schools required students to submit either an ACT or SAT score. Today, fewer schools require students to jump through that hoop. Most schools that have dropped the standardized test score cite improvements to the diversity of their applicant pool as the driving factor behind their decision. Cynics point out that dropping the test score requirement drives up the number of people applying which gives schools the appearance of being more selective.
Whatever the reason, test-optional has undoubtedly led to more students applying to schools without a test score. In particular, the most selective universities are seeing more applications than ever before.
While some universities took a test-optional stance as early as the early 2000s, most schools were forced to become test-optional during the 2020-2021 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down testing sites. Since that time, many schools have kept their test-optional status, and students are submitting test scores far less frequently than they did before the pandemic.
Some schools have taken the test-optional trend a step further. For example, the California higher education system no longer accepts test scores as part of its application process. Top students looking to attend these schools (which include some of the most prestigious public universities) can no longer bank on test scores to help them gain admission.
Top Schools Are Using Waitlists To Drive Acceptance Rates Down
Every college wants to increase its yield which is the proportion of admitted students who ultimately attend the school. Early decision, where admitted students must decide to attend by December whether to attend the school. Top schools are also making use of waitlists to keep acceptance rates artificially low. Students put on a waitlist are in a “limbo” status between accepted and rejected. Those who commit to other colleges will ask to be removed from the waitlist, while those who remain interested stay on the list.
Colleges fill up their incoming classes with “waitlisted” applicants if too few people who were originally accepted decide to attend. The National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) reports that 43% of schools use waitlists with 20% of waitlisted students ultimately gaining admission to the institution. However, the waitlist process offers an outsized benefit to selective schools that can fill up most of their spots while maintaining a super-low acceptance rate.
If they need a few more students to fill a class they can make target offers to qualified students who weren’t originally accepted.
The Vicious Cycle Driving Applications Up and Acceptance Down
Given the increasingly competitive landscape, students who want to attend a top school feel the need to apply to more schools to gain admittance to at least one selective school. At the same time, top schools are getting inundated with more top candidates than ever before. This vicious cycle could continue to drive applications up and acceptance rates down.
But the story at the top schools isn’t the story everywhere. NACAC reports that overall admittance rates are up from their 2012 lows, and most schools are fighting over fewer students who will ultimately enroll in college.
The Bottom Line
If you’re a current high school student, you probably don’t need to worry that no school will accept you. Even average students can gain acceptance to less selective schools, community colleges, and some selective schools. If you have your heart set on a selective school, you need to be willing to play the numbers game. Without a systematic change to the college admissions process, you can’t be assured of admittance to selective schools even if you’re a top student. That leaves you applying to half a dozen or more schools in the hopes that one will let you in.
But top students should remember that entry to a selective school isn’t a guarantee of financial wellness. You may want to consider less selective schools that offer more generous scholarships and grants to help you cover the cost of your undergraduate education.
Hannah is a wife, mom, and described personal finance geek. She excels with spreadsheets (and puns)! She regularly explores in-depth financial topics and enjoys looking at the latest tools and trends with money.