Let’s look briefly at the other major factor influencing the admissions frenzy of the past couple of decades.
Way back in 1960, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 1.9 million kids graduated from high school in the US. As baby boomers hit high school in full force in the 1960s, that number grew very quickly to 2.9 million in 1970.
But the number plateaued right around that point all the way to the end of the century, meaning through the time 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. This increase of over 28% 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% 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 2018. 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 2018 for students from US high schools? After removing those who are from other countries, the eight universities in the Ivy League had a bit under 13,000 seats, or enough for about 3.6% 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 admit rate for extremely strong students. It’s not that 5% of all students are getting into Princeton; that would be 180,000 students, which is a few more than they can accommodate. It’s 5% 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 just over 17,000 students, or 4.7% 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 39,600. Think about that. These 25 colleges combined can only accommodate 11% of those in the top 10%, 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 most selective schools. Where are they?
I’ve come up with an interesting way of looking at this that I haven’t seen anywhere else. 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 test takers. Then I compiled a list of the schools with the most students in this category.
This list will serve as our first evidence this evening that all the frenzy over college admissions 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.
I should preface this list with a statement that these are approximations that contain some assumptions, including that all institutions report data in the same manner and that students who entered in prior years have the same SAT score distribution. The same assumptions were made for all schools, though, so the order should be close to accurate.
Okay, let’s look at the 28 universities with over 7000 students who fit this description. Note that we’ll be looking at them in order by the number of students–not the percentage of students–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.