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Chasing the college acceptance letter: Is it harder to get into college?

"Colleges, Awash in Applications, Turning Away Even Top Students"
(Washington Post, April 7, 2006)

"Rising GPAs Making It Harder to Get Into College"
(Associated Press, January 23, 2007)

"Getting in Gets Harder"
(Newsweek, January 3, 2008)

The headlines are stark. Anxiety levels are sky-high. Parents, students, and educators whisper about the straight-A student who never received an acceptance letter. As a result, the college admissions game starts earlier and earlier, with a few students spending thousands of dollars on special coaches who promise admittance to their first-choice college.

Is it necessary?

It may come as a shock, but the data shows that it is no more difficult to get into college today than it was a decade ago. Beneath the headlines and the urban legends lies the real story: If students are well prepared in high school by earning the right credentials, they will get into a good college.

And “right credentials” doesn’t have to mean straight A’s, transcripts full of Advanced Placement courses, a perfect score on a college entrance exam, or spending fifty hours a week on extracurricular activities. It just means students should earn decent grades, take college-preparatory courses, and perform well on their college entrance exams. All these factors are within the power of high schools to influence. Does this mean that all students will get into the college of their dreams? Not necessarily. But students who fulfill the above criteria should be able to get into a competitive, four-year college and increase their chances of realizing their dreams.

The relationship between high school credentials and college acceptance holds true for every group of students. However, some groups are more likely to earn the right credentials than others. Even though the number of minority students going onto some type of postsecondary education has increased significantly over the past decade (Table 1  and Table 2), a much smaller percentage of minority students earn the grades, take the courses, and score high enough on their college entrance exams to have as good a chance of getting into a competitive four-year college as their white peers. The credentials earned by students from low-income families likewise lag behind students from higher-income backgrounds. If high schools significantly improve the college preparedness of minority and low-income students, the college-going gap that still exists between students based on family characteristics could shrink.

The bottom line
  • It is no more difficult for most students to get into college today than it was a decade ago. The shrinking acceptance rates cited in so many news reports likely come from a higher number of applications per student. However, the average applicant today has about the same chance of getting into a competitive college as an average applicant a decade ago.
  • Taking more rigorous courses, especially in math and science, gives an applicant a better chance of getting into a competitive college than does raising his or her GPA. For instance, lower-achieving students could increase their chances by over 10 percent if they simply took trigonometry instead of stopping math at algebra II. Higher college admissions scores also increase a student’s chances.
  • Well-prepared minority applicants have just as good of a chance of getting into a competitive college as well-prepared white students. However, a much smaller percentage of minority applicants earn the necessary credentials.
  • Well-prepared low-income applicants are less likely to get into a competitive college as well-prepared high-income applicants: 67 percent vs. 80 percent. Moreover, few low-income applicants earn the necessary credentials.

The rise of an urban legend

Where did the ominous headlines come from? For one, some colleges did get harder to get into including a number of state flagship universities. At the same time, however, a number of colleges actually got easier to get into. So it may have gotten more difficult to get into some colleges but for the vast majority it remained the same or even got easier.

However, the driving force behind most of those ominous headlines is the fact that many colleges have been boasting about their ever-shrinking acceptance rates, with some reporting they accept less than 10 percent of applicants.

The data and methodology

Only those students who graduated high school with a standard high school diploma, took a college entrance exam2(the ACT or SAT), and applied to at least one college were included in this report. We also only included those students where four years of high school transcript data were collected. Including students with less than four years of transcripts could have skewed the results. Keep in mind when interpreting the results that they only apply to high school graduates who were serious about going to college, not to all high school seniors or even all high school graduates. Analyzing these groups of students would likely provide significantly different results, since they would include a number of students who had no plans of attending college right after high school.

Transcript and all other student data came from two national longitudinal studies conducted by the National Center of Educational Statistics (NCES) at the U.S. Department of Education. The National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) data was used to examine high school graduates from the class of 1992. NELS followed a nationally representative sample of 1988 eighth graders through high school and into college (1994) and the workforce through 2000. The sample was updated in 1992 to ensure it was nationally representative of the senior class that year.

To analyze a more current college-going group, this paper used the Education Longitudinal Study (ELS) to examine the high school graduates of 2004. ELS is the most recent high school longitudinal study conducted by NCES. It followed students who were sophomores in 2002 through high school and into college (2006) and the workforce. Just as with NELS, the student sample was updated in 2004 to ensure it was nationally representative of the senior class that year.

The college admission’s selectivity / competitiveness ratings for each bachelor degree awarding institution were the only pieces of data not from NELS or ELS. The selectivity ratings were from Barron’s Profile of American Colleges3. Colleges are rated as Most Competitive, Highly Competitive, Very Competitive, Competitive, Less Competitive, or Noncompetitive. All two-year and “special” institutions are rated as noncompetitive for this study.

A less than one in ten chance of getting into your college of choice is rather poor odds. No wonder parents and students are so worried.

So why are acceptance rates going down? We know the number of applications has increased dramatically over the past decade. In 2006, nearly 60 percent of college applicants applied to four or more colleges, compared to just over 40 percent in 1996 (Pryor et al. 2007). This equals about one more application sent out per student. While it doesn’t sound like a huge increase, there were just over 1.7 million college-going students in 2004 and only about 1700 colleges. This increase equates to about 1000 additional applications per school. Such an increase can really drive down acceptance rates.

However, the increase in the number of applications does not necessarily mean there are fewer spots for qualified students. As matter of fact, some researchers have noted that although there has been an increase in the number of high school graduates in recent years, the number of open slots at colleges has also increased at nearly the same rate (Carey 2007 and Hoxby 2009). Students sending out applications to far more colleges creates the illusion of more applicants when, in reality, there are simply more applications.

Moreover, higher education experts believe that many of these applicants are sending applications to schools they really are not qualified to attend As one analyst put it, they are sending out applications to some schools with “$65 and a dream” (Carey 2007). Think of it this way: Does a C student sending an application to Harvard decrease the school’s acceptance rate? Yes. But does it decrease the chances of a straight-A student getting admitted? Doubtful.

How can we find out if it is harder to get into college?

While the number of seats available at our colleges is growing at about the same pace as the number of high school graduates, it doesn’t tell us whether it is harder for a qualified applicant to get accepted. To figure this out, we need to actually look at each applicant’s credentials and determine if they have the same chance of getting admitted as an applicant with similar credentials from a decade ago. The credentials we looked at were student transcripts, which include the rigor of the courses a student took in high school, the grades they earned, and the scores they earned on their college entrance exams (such as the SAT or ACT). These measures are common to most college applications. More important, these are factors high schools can influence. (Although student essays and teacher recommendations are also typically part of a college application packet, they were not available for this report.)

Another aspect of college applications is the inclusion of extracurricular activities. Some parents and students believe such activities will greatly enhance their chances of getting into college. However, this does not appear to be the case, at least for most students. Loading up on extracurricular activities has no statistically significant effect on the type of college to which a student will be accepted. Nevertheless, it may make a difference in whether some students are accepted into a specificcollege.

Finally, even though many of today’s headlines focus on how difficult it is for top applicants to get into elite colleges, this report’s main focus is on how difficult it is for the average applicant to get into a competitive1, or somewhat selective college. However, it does also examine how difficult it is for high-performing applicants to get into elite schools, and how difficult it is for lower-performing applicants to get into a competitive school. In addition, this report will look at whether minority and low-income graduates are less likely to get into college now than a decade ago and how their chances compare to their white and high-income peers.

Why is this paper important?

Besides calming parents’ and students’ fears, why should it matter to educators and policymakers how hard it is for students to get into college? Educators, parents, and students need to know what today’s students must accomplish in high school to give them the best chance of getting into college. A good, college-preparatory high school education is remarkably similar to the one needed to find a good, non-degree job. For example, the Center’s recent report on 21st century education shows that high school students who wish to become electricians or auto mechanics would be better served by taking the same kind of higher-level high school courses that colleges look for in their applicants (Jerald 2009).

What this report is not about

The focus of this report is on the chances the average student will get accepted into college. This is different from whether that student actually attends college. A student may be accepted to a college but not attend for various reasons having nothing to do with academic qualifications (e.g., financial concerns). Furthermore, this report does not specifically focus on how well students are prepared for college coursework or how students actually perform once they are in college. Just because a student earned the academic credentials to get admitted into a four year college does not necessarily mean he or she is prepared to succeed in college. Nonetheless, many of the report’s findings reinforce other research on what leads to postsecondary success, particularly in regard to high-school course-taking. Cliff Adelman’s Toolbox Revisited, for example, provides a wealth of information in this area (where he found that the rigor of the courses a student completed in high school was the most important precollegiate factor on whether a student went on to earn a bachelor’s degree [Adelman 2006]). ACT’sThe Condition of College Readiness report also provides valuable information on what courses students need to complete in high school to be successful once they are in college.

Is it harder to get into college?

The average applicant

Is it harder for an average college applicant to get accepted4 now than a decade ago? The answer appears to be no. In 1992, the average high school graduate expecting to go to college earned an overall Grade Point Average (GPA) of 2.95—which falls within the range of a B—scored a 22 on the ACT college entrance exam, and passed math and science courses up through trigonometry6 and chemistry, respectively. With these credentials, a graduate in 1992 had a 72 percent chance of getting admitted into a competitive four-year college. A graduate in 2004 with the same credentials actually had a slightly better chance of getting admitted to college—76 percent (Chart 1).

Chart 1

That conclusion raises the next question: Did the average 2004 applicant have the same academic credentials as the average 1992 applicant? College-going graduates in 2004 did earn higher grades. The average applicant in 2004 earned a GPA of 3.1, while the average 1992 applicant earned a 2.9. However, the higher grades did not result in higher college entrance exam scores. The average 1992 applicant scored a 22 on the ACT7, while the average 2004 applicant scored 21. When it came to course taking, both the average 2004 and 1992 applicant completed trigonometry and chemistry as their highest math and science courses (Table 3).

Table 3

 

So yes, the average applicants from both years had similar credentials, and those translated into somewhat similar chances for college admission. The average 2004 student, with a higher GPA and lower ACT score, had a 75 percent chance of getting admitted into a competitive four-year college compared to the 72 percent chance for the average 1992 applicant.

So what would raise a student’s chances? More rigorous courses are best, followed by higher college entrance exam scores. If an average 2004 applicant was able to pass pre-calculus instead of stopping at trigonometry, his or her chances would have increased to 79 percent (Chart 2).

Chart 2

 

However, it would take a student raising his or her GPA drastically from a 3.1 to a 3.6—a B to an A minus—to increase the chance of getting into college as much as simply completing pre-calculus (Chart 3).

Chart 3

  

Moreover, if the average 2004 applicant had scored a 22 on the ACT—just as the average 1992 applicant did—his or her chances of getting into college would have risen from 75 to 78 percent. This illustrates that a small increase in ACT scores or taking more rigorous courses can increase a student’s chances of getting into college more than raising GPA can (Chart 4).

Chart 4

 

The high achieving applicant

But what about those high-performing students who want to get into our nation’s top colleges? Were top 2004 applicants less likely to get into a highly competitive college than their counterparts in 1992? Once again, the answer is no. A top 1992 applicant—a GPA, ACT score and course taking at the 90th percentile nationwide—was no more likely to get admitted into a highly competitive college than a top 2004 graduate.

What may be surprising to some is that a top 2004 applicant was actually slightly more likely to get admitted into a highly competitive college than a top 1992 applicant. A top 2004 applicant had a 68 percent chance of getting into a highly competitive college in 2004, compared to a 61 percent chance in 1992.

To get into that elite group, a 2004 applicant had to earn a 3.83 GPA. For the class of 1992, a student only had to earn a GPA of 3.71. For both years, however, top applicants passed calculus as well as physics II, chemistry II, or advanced biology, and scored a 28 out of a possible 36 on the ACT. So there was not a big difference in the credentials of top students in 1992 and 2004 (Table 4).

Table 4

 

The higher GPA earned by the top 2004 graduates did not increase their chances of getting into a top college by much. Even if a top 2004 applicant had the lower GPA of the top 1992 graduate (while having the same ACT scores and taking the same courses, which stayed unchanged between years) he or she would still have a 67 percent chance of getting into a highly competitive college. Since the top 1992 graduate only had a 61 percent chance, it is actually slightly easier for today’s top students to get into our nation’s top schools—despite the declining acceptance rates at many of those schools (Chart 5).

Chart 5

 

The lower achieving applicant

Table 5

 

On the other end of the achievement spectrum, lower-achieving college applicants, those who earned GPAs, ACT scores, and took courses at the 25th percentile in 2004, were just as likely to get into a good college as their lower achieving peers a decade earlier (Table 5). In 1992 a student who earned a 2.51 GPA, scored an 18 on the ACT, and completed algebra II and chemistry had a 52 percent chance of getting into college. In 2004, a lower-achieving applicant with the same credentials and a slightly higher GPA of 2.67 had the same chance of being accepted (Chart 6).

Chart 6

 

Lower-achieving students could increase their chances from 52 to 57 percent if they simply completed trigonometry instead of stopping math at algebra II. Furthermore, raising their ACT scores just two points would also increase their chances up to 57 percent. These are greater increases than if the student earned a 3.0 GPA. These numbers show that lower-achieving students today need to take more rigorous high school courses or increase their ACT scores to have a decent chance of getting into a good college.

The minority applicants

Minority8 applicants have a better chance of getting into college today than they did just a decade earlier. A 1992 minority college applicant who earned the same GPA, ACT scores, and took the same courses as the average 1992 applicant had a 74 percent chance of getting into college. In 2004, a minority student who earned the same credentials as the average 2004 applicant had a 79 percent chance of getting into college. (See Chart 1.) So it was easier for minority college applicants with average credentials to get into a competitive four-year college in 2004.

While this is good news, a closer look raises some concerns. Even though minority applicants have a better chance of getting into college than similar-achieving white applicants, only a small percentage of minority graduates have the academic credentials of the overall average college applicant. Only 15 percent of 2004 minority graduates earned at least a 3.12 GPA, scored a 21 on the ACT and completed at least trigonometry and chemistry. On the other hand, nearly 40 percent of white 2004 graduates were able to do so. In 1992, 14 percent of minority graduates performed as well as the average graduate. (Chart 7)

Chart 7

 

Even more sobering is the fact that only 37 percent of minority graduates in 2004 earned the high school credentials needed to give them a 50/50 shot at getting admitted to a competitive four-year college (Table 6).

Table 6

 

This percentage is in stark contrast to the nearly two-thirds of white students who met these criteria (Chart 8).

Chart 8

 

For minority students there is a mixed message. If they earn the same grades, take the same courses, and score the same on their college entrance tests, they have just as good a chance of getting into college as their white classmates. However, the chance of a minority student earning such academic credentials is still much lower.

The low-income applicant

Although minority students have a better chance of getting into college than they did ten years ago, the same cannot be said for students from low-income families. In 1992, low-income college applicants—those who came from families that fell within the lowest 25 percent in socioeconomic status9—who earned the same academic credentials as the average college-going graduate had a 72 percent chance of getting admitted into a competitive college. In 2004, a low-income graduate with the same credentials had just a 66 percent chance (Chart 1).

In contrast, in 2004, high-income applicants—those who came from families that fell in the top 25 percent in socioeconomic status—had a better chance of getting into a competitive college than high-income graduates a decade earlier (80 percent compared to 72 percent). While there was almost no difference between low and high-income qualified applicants’ chances of getting into college in 1992, by 2004 high-income students were over 20 percent more likely than their low-income classmates (80 and 66 percent, respectively) to get admitted to a competitive college.

In addition, just as with minority students, very few low-income 2004 graduates had the credentials of an average 2004 applicant. Just 16 percent of low-income 2004 graduates earned at least a 3.12 GPA, scored a 21 on the ACT, and completed at least trigonometry and chemistry, while nearly half (47 percent) of high-income graduates did so (Chart 7). Furthermore, just over a third (38 percent) of low-income 2004 graduates earned the credentials needed to give them at least a 50/50 chance of getting into a competitive college. However, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of high-income graduates earned such minimal credentials (Chart 6).

The good news, however, is that these numbers represent a gain. Back in 1992, only 10 percent of low-income students earned the same credentials as the average 1992 graduate. In 2004 that has grown to 16 percent. Furthermore, the gap between low-income and high-income graduates did narrow. In 1992 four times as many high-income graduates than low-income graduates earned the credentials of the average graduate. In 2004 that ratio dropped to less than three times as many high-income graduates.

Conclusion

Getting into a good college today is no more difficult for most students than it was for their counterparts a decade ago. Even the top 10 percent of students have the same chances of getting into a top college as they did a decade ago.

So what has changed? An increase in the number of applications per student has caused overall college acceptance rates to decline. Overall credentials have stayed much the same, with the GPA of the average student rising.

But a higher GPA isn’t the key to improving students’ chances. Better college entrance exam scores and, more importantly, more rigorous courses, will.

This holds important implications for those concerned with equitable access to college. Few minority students earn the academic credentials that would give them the same chance of getting into college as their white peers. Low-income students are more likely to earn the same credentials, but even those with the same credentials are less likely to be admitted to a competitive college.

All high schools, especially those that serve a large number of minority and low-income students, must ensure that they are providing the courses and resources needed so their students are at least as prepared as the average college applicant. Whether or not these students choose to attend college, they deserve the choice. High schools can, and should, be the great equalizer in preparing all students for life after high school.

What can school boards do?

School board members can do their part to ensure all students have at least the option of going to college after high school.

School boards can:

  • Ensure that all students are provided a rigorous high school curriculum, especially higher level math and science courses like trigonometry and chemistry.
  • Ensure that all students have access to high-quality teachers who can teach higher level courses effectively.
  • Ensure that students have been given the proper math and science instruction in middle school so they are on track to complete college preparatory courses in high school, including trigonometry and chemistry.
  • Provide resources to students who need help to do well in high-level courses and on their college entrance exams.
  • Ensure that students have access to knowledgeable guidance counselors who will make sure students are enrolled in the courses that will prepare them for college and are given the support they need to succeed.

School boards should be asking:

  • Are all students entering high school prepared for college preparatory course work?
  • Is our high school curriculum aligned with the expectations of our local colleges?
  • Are school counselors properly advising all students to start taking the courses they need as soon as they enter high school so they can get into college?
  • Are school counselors available to help all students through the college application process and to assist with their financial aid options?

Endnotes

1 Selective is a term synonymous with competitive in rating a college’s admissions’ standards. 
College entrance exam scores were all placed on the ACT scoring scale using concordance tables likely used by admissions officers at the time students were applying for college.
3 Selectivity ratings based on the 1995 and 2007 editions. 
Unless noted otherwise college refers to 4-year colleges with at least a competitive admissions rating
5 On a 4.0 scale. 
6 Algebra III and Analytic Geometry are equivalents. 
7 Student SAT scores were converted to ACT scores using a concordance tables.
8 Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students. 
9 Socioeconomic status is a composite variable developed by NCES contained within NELS and ELS.


This report was written by Jim Hull, Center for Public Education Senior Policy Analyst. Special thanks to Dr. Jeff Allen at ACT, Inc. Statistical Research and Eric Taylor at the Center for Education Policy Research at the Harvard School of Education, for their insights and suggestions. Errors and opinions found within this guide, however, are solely those of the author.


Posted: January 15, 2010

©2010 Center for Public Education

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Home > Staffing and Students > Chasing the college acceptance letter > Chasing the college acceptance letter: Is it harder to get into college?