What does selectivity mean in college admissions?

Acceptance rates say more about the college admissions process than they do about school quality.

Getting into a highly selective school can feel like winning the lottery. The odds aren’t quite that long, but they’ve been moving toward “struck by lightning” territory for years.  As acceptance rates at Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford slip below five percent, it’s worth considering what they tell us about a school. We’d argue not much.

Acceptance rates as a key ranking factor

Until last year, acceptance rates were a key factor in the famous U.S. News and World Report college rankings. The editors regularly defended their methodology as simple supply and demand. 

We are all used to the idea that the price of, say, a first edition Helen MacInnes novel is determined by how many people want one (too few) and how many exist in the world (not enough). 

Well, the acceptance rate at Columbia University is determined by how many people want in (42,569) and how many spaces there are (2,190). If price is a good proxy for value, then why wouldn’t acceptance rates be a good proxy for the “value” of a Columbia education? 

College admissions applications are not dollars. 

When I bid on a rare book, I spend money that could be used for food, rent, or other rare books. Each dollar represents an equal portion of my labor here at Admissionado. But when a college applicant smashes the “submit” button on yet another Common App, what has it cost them?

An application fee, which is nothing compared to tuition or the potential earnings a college degree unlocks, and a couple of stand out supplemental essays, which become easier and easier to write the more practice you’ve had. When you factor in tests, transcripts, etc., the effort required for application #1 is easily three or four times more than the effort required for application #10.

If the acceptance was the case for money. 

The first dollar you bid on Above Suspicion costs you one dollar, the second costs you 80 cents… and so on until the tenth dollar costs you only a dime! This seems like a recipe for massively inflated prices and college admissions cheatings

While the number of graduating high school seniors and seats in universities change slowly, the number of applications (“dollars”) has skyrocketed ever since the Common App was introduced. This trend, more than anything else, is responsible for selectivity at elite schools.

But what if we were to correct for the growth in total applications, and for factors like whether or not schools accept the Common App? Wouldn’t the comparison between acceptance rates still be a meaningful metric? Perhaps, but only if each application represents an equivalent amount of sincere “demand” for an Ivy League (plus) education. 

The lottery metaphor for college admissions

Here the lottery metaphor seems particularly apt. Most people buy a lottery ticket knowing that they won’t win… but the ticket is cheap, the payout is HUGE, and it feels good to know you could theoretically hit the jackpot. 

We would argue that a very similar psychology is at work in elite college admissions. Of Princeton’s 32,804 applications, how many were low effort “lottery tickets” bought by people who knew they had very little prospect of getting in, but took a chance in admissions because applying online is simpler and requires less writing than this blog post? 

Given the rapid increase in applicants to Princeton since the introduction of online applications, it seems likely that “people who wouldn’t have applied if it wasn’t easy” make up a huge portion of today’s pool.

What does selectivity actually tell us? 

Mostly it’s a proxy for a school’s name recognition among America’s high school seniors. Name recognition is, of course, a real and important factor when choosing a college. It’s useful to have a prestigious name on your resume, and the connections that come along with that can open important doors early in a graduate’s career.

But if we want to consider name recognition when making a target school list, using selectivity as a proxy is inefficient, because you don’t actually care which university your fellow college applicants have heard of. Instead, research the schools that have the best reputation in your target field or industry, and figure out where the people making hiring decisions graduated from.

If you want to work in consulting or personal finance after graduation, you’ll find that your list looks a lot like a list of the country’s most selective universities. But for most other fields, your list will likely include some surprise universities that aren’t nearly as selective. Applying to those specialized programs will give you more options and put you in a much less stressful position than a shmuck relying on selectivity as the sole arbiter of a school’s brand.

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