Way back in 1960, 1.9 million kids graduated from American high schools. As baby boomers hit high school in full force over the following 10 years, the number grew very quickly to 2.9 million in 1970.
But it plateaued right around there all the way to the end of the century, which includes the time during which I and almost all current parents of high school students applied to college. Because of this, none of us saw any appreciable change in competition for college seats from those who had come recently before us. And going for three decades without much change in the level of competition, folks get a pretty good idea of what it takes to be admitted to any given school. This naturally leads to expectations arising, and expectations can take a long time to evolve in the face of changing circumstances. And circumstances have changed dramatically in the past two decades.
From 2000 to 2010, the number of students graduating from American high schools increased by around 600,000, and today the number is around 800,000 higher than it was in 2000. It’s projected that this will level off at around 3.7 to 3.8 million graduates by 2030, but this increase of over 28% over the past 20 years has impacted college admissions enormously.
Class of 1960 1.9 million
Class of 1970 2.9 million
Class of 1980 3.0 million
Class of 1990 2.6 million
Class of 2000 2.8 million
Class of 2010 3.4 million
Class of 2020 3.6 million
Source: National Center for Education Statistics
With 800,000 more students, we have 80,000 more who are in the top 10% (however you choose to measure it) than there were 20 years ago. And how many more seats have been added for graduates of US high schools at the eight Ivy League schools plus Stanford, Duke, MIT and CalTech? Right around 500. Yup, 500 more seats and 80,000 more who have the numbers to consider them potentially within reach.
Let’s look at this a little differently…..
Over 3.6 million students graduated from American high schools in 2020. Probably at least 10% entered high school thinking they might have a chance at admission to one of the most selective colleges in the US. That’s 360,000 kids—and their parents—who might have had this picture in their minds through most or all of their time in high school.
How many seats were there at the most selective colleges for the class of 2020 for students from US high schools? After excluding those who are from other countries, the eight universities in the Ivy League had around 12,100 seats, enough for about 3.4% of the top 10% of students.
Of the top 10% of students. That’s important!
When you’re hearing what the admit rate is for the most selective colleges, it’s critical to understand that this is the rate for extremely strong students. It’s not that 6% of all students are getting into Princeton; that would be 216,000 students, which is a few more than they can accommodate. It’s 6% of their applicants, who pretty much all are in the top 10% of their high school class and are also in the top 5% on standardized testing.
Adding Stanford, Duke, MIT and CalTech to the Ivies raises the number of seats to 16,300, or 4.5% of the top 10%.
And if we include the University of Chicago, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Rice, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Washington University in St. Louis, Notre Dame, UC—Berkeley, the University of Virginia, Swarthmore, Williams and Amherst, I believe we’ve covered the schools most likely to be obsessed over nationwide by large numbers of the country’s most accomplished students. (Note: I will refer to these 25 colleges collectively as the MC25 elsewhere on this website.)
The total number of seats for American students at these schools? Around 38,500. Think about that. These 25 colleges combined can accommodate less than 11% of those in the top 10%, or around 1.1% of all students. So if all 360,000 of those kids (and their parents) had been putting everything they had into trying to gain admission to one of those schools for all four years of high school—and in many cases for years before that—it was predestined that over 300,000 would not be successful. Collectively, that’s an awful lot of stress for so little return.
It also means a whole lot of very capable students aren’t attending the country’s 25 most selective colleges. Where are they?
I’ve come up with a few interesting ways of looking at this that I haven’t seen anywhere else. For the first, I used numbers provided by the colleges in their Common Data Sets to approximate how many students they have with an SAT score at or above 700 on the Math section, or the equivalent score of 30 or above on the Math section of the ACT; this represents approximately the top 5% of high schoolers. Then I compiled a list of the schools with the most students in their freshman class who are in this category.
This list will serve as our first evidence that all the frenzy over college admission is not only harmful but also unnecessary, because the differences between more selective schools and those a bit less selective are not as great as many people think.
Let’s look at the 39 universities with over 1600 students who fit this description. Note that we’ll be looking at them in order by the number of freshmen–not the percentage–with SAT or ACT scores in the top 5%, although I do provide the percentages, too.
See if you can guess who’s number one.