Admission rates aren’t all they are cracked up to be

As it becomes easier for prospective students to send out multiple applications, it may be time to de-emphasize acceptance rates as measures of prestige for institutions of higher learning.

Students are sending out more and more college applications, even as overall enrollment declines. Total estimated enrollment for degree-granting institutions in the U.S. dropped to 19.1 million students in the spring of 2013, down 2.3% from one year earlier, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The spring 2012 figure, 19.6 million, was down 0.3% from one year earlier.

But applications are on the rise in part because it’s much easier for students to apply to multiple colleges today, often through just a few mouse clicks, because of electronic forms and because colleges use uniform applications, as the New York Times points out. The most widely used application form, the Common Application, was accepted by 517 colleges and universities this year. Seven years ago, only 315 accepted it. Seven or more applications were sent out by 29% of students applying to college in 2011, up from 9% in 1990.

Two other factors contributing to the rise in applications are more troubling.

The first: Dropping acceptance rates feed the practice of students sending out more applications to improve their odds for success. The increased number of applications drive the rates down, and the cycle is perpetuated the next year.

The second: Because colleges know that acceptance rates are a factor in their prestige ranking on various lists, some of them seek to increase their applicant numbers through marketing blitzes.

As the news media focus on the selection/rejection rates, especially for the most selective schools, college admissions officers often lament that the numbers are given too much importance. But that doesn’t stop higher ed institutions from publicizing their applications and admissions numbers.

Another problem with focusing on acceptance rates is that schools define the term differently. The Washington Post notes that there is no universally accepted definition of “applicant,” and the federal definition of an applicant leaves wiggle room for differing interpretations.

The Post reported that, in 2011, the U.S. Naval Academy claimed an admissions rate of 7.5% — one percentage point better than Princeton University. The academy had counted 19,145 applications when calculating this super-exclusive rate, but only 5,720 applications were complete. The others were just partial applications, and were never seriously considered.

The applications total also included thousands of students who applied to the Naval Academy’s Summer Seminar — an event for 11th graders interested in the learning about the academy.

In 2013, the Post reported that Washington and Lee University had claimed 5,972 applications and a 19% acceptance rate, which boosted the university’s reputation by defining it as one of the most selective liberal arts schools.

But more than 1,100 of the counted applications were never completed and, like the Naval Academy example, were never seriously considered. If the incomplete applications had been subtracted from the total, the admission rate would have been 24%.

In some cases, colleges are so aggressive in trying to boost their applicant numbers that they waive all application fees and fill out just about everything on the application form except for the student’s signature — a practice known as the “fast app,” the Post reported.

This year, the most selective title went to Stanford University, at 5%, a new low for the school. The rates for Ivy League schools ranged from 5.9% at Harvard University to 14% at Cornell University. Some schools have been even more selective: IvyWise reported that the Curtis Institute of Music admitted just 2.9% of applicants for its Class of 2015.

But the more we learn about how the acceptance rates are influenced, the less impressed we are.

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