Yes, It Really Is Harder to get involved with Highly Selective Colleges Today


It's often noted by individuals of the certain age that \”I could never get into my alma mater basically were applying today.\” The traditional wisdom is that it's now more difficult to be accepted into highly selective colleges and universities of computer would be a generation ago. But is the fact that true?

To discover, we identified the median SAT scores (math plus verbal) on most of the 100 top national universities and 50 top liberal arts colleges (as based on the 2021 US News and World Report college rankings) for that incoming freshmen classes of 1985 and 2021. The 1985 data came from the 1986 edition of Barron's Profiles of yankee Colleges, found in the Library of Congress. The 2021 data put together in the 2021 edition of Barron's Profiles of yankee Colleges. Since the SAT was re-normed in 1995 (and again in 2021, but after the period of time for the data), we used a concordance table authored by the school Board to adjust the 1985 scores accordingly. Of the 150 institutions examined, median SAT scores were available in both years for 95 of these.

We used SAT scores as our way of measuring selectivity rather than acceptance rates because those rates have plummeted for many institutions recently, due to changes in the applying process itself. For instance, the \”common app\” makes it relatively easy and affordable for college students to apply to larger numbers of schools. Increasingly more students, particularly those gunning for that big-name institutions, do so. Since college rankings lists provide a large amount of weight to rejection rates, colleges face strong incentives to push those rates as high as possible by doing items like generating large numbers of applications from students unlikely to become accepted, a smaller amount attend. In comparison, median SAT scores-appropriately adjusted-give us a much better measure of the educational quality of the institution's freshman class.

To make sure, they aren't perfect. They don't, for instance, take into account the many students who took and submitted ACT scores over this time period. The scores themselves could be inflated by test prep-which can give a benefit to more affluent students-or by various machinations of the colleges, for example encouraging otherwise well qualified applicants with lower test scores to show up for the spring semester of freshman year instead of in the fall. The colleges within our sample take a look at a lot more than test scores, so \”selectivity\” goes beyond the SAT. Everything said, they are doing inform us something concerning the impossibility of getting into confirmed college today versus a generation ago.

What did we learn? At least, the traditional wisdom has it about right. With just several exceptions, median SAT scores for the most selective institutions have risen significantly in the last generation, meaning, with that measure, it truly is harder to get involved with such schools today than three decades ago.

Among the institutions within our sample, the average median SAT score for the incoming freshman class increased by 93 points, to 1309 from 1216.

Fourteen institutions saw increases of 150 points or even more:

o Elon College, to 1192 from 952, a rise of 240 points
o University of Chicago, to 1520 from 1331, a rise of 189 points
o Ohio State, to 1280 from 1100, a rise of 180 points
o Pitzer College, to 1293 from 1116, an increase of 177 points
o UCLA, to 1320 from 1143, an increase of 177 points
o UC-San Diego, to 1337 from 1160, an increase of 177 points
o Boston College, to 1360 from 1190, an increase of 170 points
o SUNY at Stony Brook, to 1290 from 1120, a rise of 170 points
o University of Pittsburgh, to 1280 from 1112, a rise of 168 points
o Georgia Tech, to 1410 from 1243, a rise of 167 points
o Case Western, to 1410 from 1247, a rise of 163 points
o Brown University, to 1490 from 1335, an increase of 155 points
o UNC-Chapel Hill, to 1263 from 1110, a rise of 153 points
o Notre Dame, to 1440 from 1290, a rise of 150 points

Another method to understand this shift is hold median SAT scores constant, rather than holding institutions constant. For example:

o NYU's median SAT scores today are roughly the same as Columbia's median SAT scores a generation ago
o Georgia Tech and Case Western have median SAT scores today that are roughly the same as Yale's an era ago
o Tulane's median SAT scores today is one point greater than Duke's a generation ago

Other SAT score \”twins\” include:

o UC-San Diego (today) and Georgetown (then)
o University of Richmond (today) and Carleton College (then)
o University of Miami (today) and Northwestern (then)
o UNC-Chapel Hill (today) and Notre Dame (then)
o SUNY at Stony Brook (today) and Middlebury College (then)
o Virginia Tech (today) and Wake Forest (then)
o Penn State (today) and Boston College (then)

What might explain these trends?

First, the U.S. population has increased almost 50 percent over this time. But places like Yale aren't admitting 50 percent more students than they were in 1980. Plus, there are other international students fighting for these slots as well.

Second, America is really a richer and better-educated country than it was a generation ago. The upper-middle-class and above is continuing to grow significantly as a share of people, which would be the families probably to desire to highly selective institutions for his or her children. And given the price of attending these top-tier schools, they're also the families who can most afford them.

Third, as Caroline Hoxby found in a 2009 study, point about this comes from the elevated mobility of America's top students. To put it simply, students with high SAT scores may visit highly selective institutions compared to what they used to be, whenever a large proportion of high-scoring youngsters would have stayed close to home and attended less selective regional universites and colleges. Consequently, such students are self-sorting into fewer, and much more selective, schools.

So what are the implications?

First, parents and students ought to keep these trends in your mind, especially if they get bad news from the admissions offices of highly selective colleges and universities. It truly is harder to get involved with a great school today, and families should set their expectations accordingly. (Even when junior is evenly as smart and hardworking as dad, his beloved alma mater may be unrealistic.)

Second, towards the extent that employers use college selectivity being an indication of applicant quality (not that they ought to, however, many do), they need to improve their listing of universites and colleges by which they are impressed. For example, when they used to recruit from Duke, they should start recruiting from Tulane too. (The same might affect singles who're \”shopping\” for a partner from a prestigious school!)

Finally, if there's anything the present Covid-19 crisis is teaching us, it's that people ought to keep everything in perspective. Even if students get disappointing news within their in-boxes within the weeks ahead, they and their families should remember that America is blessed with countless world-class universites and colleges. Now let's hope that they'll open their doors again come September.

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