Application Inflation and the Illusion of College Selectivity

If you’re a student in the midst of the college application process, the Common Application is pretty awesome. The Common App is a single application that can be submitted to multiple colleges and universities at once, simplifying, streamlining, and discounting the college admissions process. More than 900 colleges accept the Common App. If you’re in the midst of preparing 10 applications, this can be an incredible way to save time, energy, and money. However, one natural byproduct of this convenience is a relative explosion in the number of applications each student submits every year. This explosion is accompanied by precipitously shrinking college admission rates.

Application Inflation and the Illusion of College Selectivity

So the Common App is great for students, but what does this pattern mean when it comes to the notion of college selectivity? What do college admission rates really mean? And are we investing too much stock into this metric?

Well, I’m sure you can see where this is going. Getting right to the point, college admission rates are a highly flawed metric for ranking colleges or for making personal decisions about where you, as a student, actually belong. We’re not saying admission rates are irrelevant–just highly flawed.

To be clear, this is not an indictment of the Common App. Quite to the contrary, the Common App is meant to make the application process more accessible. To this end, it’s clearly working. Our indictment is aimed at the very idea of selectivity, and our critique is reserved for the outsized emphasis that we place on admission rates.

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What is the Common Application?

Before we dive deeper on this charge, let’s take a quick step back for an overview of what the Common App is and how it works.

The Common Application is made available by Common Application Inc., a non-profit organization formed in 1975 to help simplify college admissions. Today, more than 900 colleges and universities—the majority of them in the U.S.—accept the Common Application. The Common Application is available strictly online. Applying through the Common App is a paperless process that allows students to fire off a dozen applications at once while eliminating redundancies in the process. The result is an application process which is easier, more organized, and more accessible.

Today, more than 900 colleges and universities—the majority of them in the U.S.—accept the Common Application.”

Students may use the Common App portal free of charge to submit applications to up to 20 colleges and universities. Though many of the colleges accepting this application will impose their own submission fees, the Common App does gather together, all in one place, more than 300 colleges and universities that do not charge an application submission fee. This makes it easier for cost-conscious students to cast a wider net with applications.

To learn more about the Common App, and how you can make the most of this tool, check out our Focus on the Common Application.

The Implications of Application Inflation

Purely from the perspective of convenience and accessibility, the Common App is a great thing for students. And that’s a big deal. The college application process can be stressful, and the issues of accessibility in higher education are various and troubling. Any resource that can help offset these challenges is a good thing. And of course, this means that most students are applying to a larger number of schools than ever before. To a certain perspective, this means the Common App is achieving exactly what it was designed to do.

According to Inside Higher Ed, while the number of unique applicants in 2021 is up just 1% over the previous year (accounting for a total of 989,063 college hopefuls), the number of overall applications topped 5.5 million. This denotes a 10% increase in overall applications submitted.

...This means that most students are applying to a larger number of schools than ever before.”

There are numerous reasons for this spike, some of them directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For one, many elite schools have waived their requirements for the submission of standardized test scores. Others have waived application fees for the first time this year as a way to offset financial challenges for students impacted by the pandemic. And in general, this period has seen a veritable explosion in the number of applications seen by elite schools. This latter trend is one that itself warrants further exploration, especially as these application spikes run in direct contradiction to sagging application rates at schools outside the elite tiers.

To learn more about what’s happening in admission offices at the top tier schools, check out our answer to the question “Should I go to an elite school?”

But at the moment, we are less concerned with the reasons for this spike and more interested in exploring the impact this spike has on the notion of selectivity. The New York Times calls this impact “application inflation.” According to the Times, “Students are sending off more applications than ever. In 1990, just 9 percent of students applied to seven or more schools, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. By 2013, that group had grown to 32 percent.”

But just beneath this wave of applications, admission rates are sinking ever closer to the ocean floor, particularly at America’s most prestigious institutions. The top schools have always been tough to access. But in the scope of the current application inflation trend, the recent nosedive in admission rates doesn’t necessarily mean that these elite schools are any harder to get into. To some extent, it means that more top students than ever before are simply playing the odds.

...admission rates are sinking ever closer to the ocean floor, particularly at America's most prestigious institutions.”

According to Inside Higher Ed, among numerous other unique trends that we’ve witnessed over the course of this very unusual year, “Applicants are also applying to more colleges this year. With a 9 percent increase in the application per applicant ratio on top of all of the other changes in the external environment and admissions process, it is an understatement to say that yield models will be more challenged than ever this year.”

The Illusion of Selectivity

There is a clear upward trend in the number of applications submitted by individual students, especially those with their sights set on the higher strata of higher ed. But there is another concurrent trend that we would be remiss to overlook.

According to Signature College Consulting, “A top ten school in 2006 had a 16% admissions rate. Today, that rate is just 6.4%, a decline of almost 60%. Each tranche of school is harder to get into, but ‘hypercompetition’ is increasing the fastest at the most elite universities.”

To be sure, the admission rates at the top schools are going down. But this is not necessarily proof that these schools are admitting fewer students. Nor is it evidence that the performance threshold for getting into these schools has gone up. It’s worth speculating whether one major factor behind this shrinking admission window is the emergent “spray and pray” application strategy enabled by the Common App.

One could hardly blame the prospective elite student for taking this tack. Robert J. Massa, principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now, notes that “Students are hedging their bets by applying to more colleges as a result of COVID-induced uncertainties and the unknowns surrounding how and if test scores are being considered. Families are also increasingly concerned about costs and value, so applying to more colleges gives them potentially more choices or more chances of being admitted to an institution they can afford.”

Considering that the connection between cost and selectivity is also pretty high, students can be forgiven for gaming the system to the extent that the Common App allows.

Ignore the Lure of Low Admission Rates

But here’s the bigger question. How much does selectivity really matter? We’re going to step out on a limb here and suggest that it doesn’t matter at all. The Common App has facilitated a dramatic upswing in how many applications can be submitted. And in doing so, the organization has also provided the great service of only further discrediting the already troublesome emphasis on admission rates.

Why is this emphasis troubling? Well, for one thing, selectivity and status have historically enjoyed a pretty circular relationship. Today, major ranking websites are increasingly recognizing selectivity as a flawed metric. Many have either scaled down or entirely reduced their emphasis on admission rates. But it’s hard to erase what we think we already know. Selectivity has a long history of helping to cement status for elite schools. This history is baked into the reputation of America’s top schools. It’s tough to disassociate selectivity from excellence.

Today, major ranking websites are increasingly recognizing selectivity as a flawed metric.”

But that’s exactly what these current trends tell us to do. As selectivity at the top schools inches downward, the best service you can do for yourself is to find other more meaningful ways of measuring excellence. When you do, you’ll likely still find those most selective schools in the mix. There are few metrics for excellence that won’t elevate Harvard, Princeton and Caltech to the top of a given list (unless, of course, the question is affordability).

But what you also find when you remove selectivity from the mix is an array of schools whose true excellence comes from their desirability, their diversity, and their willingness to create opportunities for those who stand to benefit the most. Colleges and universities who choose to elevate accessibility and opportunity for applicants will inherently have far higher admission rates than those who use their large endowments to aggressively recruit exponentially more applicants than they plan to accept. The nation’s most selective schools are in a race to further magnify their minuscule rates of admission for the resulting bragging rights.

Meanwhile, numerous excellent schools outside of their tier have made their reputation by opening pathways to disadvantaged, overlooked, underserved, and nontraditional student populations. In the eyes of those who rank by selectivity, these schools are penalized for their service to such populations. Moreover, these schools are pushed to the periphery of the higher education landscape in a way that can be extremely discouraging to prospective applicants.

To reiterate, admission offices at the elite schools are humming with activity in the aftermath of the pandemic. But during a public health crisis in which the rich have gotten observably richer, and the poor, observably poorer, the same pattern holds true across the higher education landscape—for students and universities alike. An emphasis on selectivity suggests a system closed off to opportunity for all but the top students. But the truth is that high-quality schools in the middle-tiers are more accessible than ever before. One wonders just how much the false impression of staggering selectivity is discouraging would-be college applicants from shooting at the middle, and further, just how much this discouragement is contributing to the chilling effect on non-elite school applications.

The takeaway? Remove selectivity from your list of requirements for a school. Low admission rates offer bragging rights but little actual substantive meaning.

Is there any value in selectivity rates?

A little. The only real value in selectivity rates is that they can give you a sense of the schools where you are likely to be a qualified candidate. Of course, with competition heightened as it is, bear in mind that qualification is by no means a predicate to acceptance. If you are interested in the secret to acceptance at one of your top schools, we recommend checking out our College Admissions Consultants and Counselors By State. College Admissions Consultants specialize in helping students navigate the uncertainties of the application process and ultimately matching up with the best school for their personal needs and outlook.

Otherwise, we would consider selectivity a mere navigational tool as you gauge your likelihood of getting accepted to a college at the top of your personal list. For more on how to use this gauge, check out our answer to the question How Many Schools Should I Apply To?

Otherwise, the best advice we can give you is this: you shouldn’t let the shrinking rates of admission frighten you away from the top schools, but neither should you let the notion of selectivity bias you against the hidden excellence of the more accessible colleges on your list.

One of the reasons that Academic Influence focuses on unique metrics like Desirability and Concentrated Influence is because we believe these indicators can tell you so much more about your compatibility with an institution than its exclusivity.

Learn more about these metrics and why we think they matter.

Otherwise, dig into that Common App and fire off as many applications as you need to. Don’t give a second thought to how this might be skewing selectivity rates. Admission rates are great for the marketing departments at the top colleges, but they should be of little concern to you. And for more advice on the application process, check out our exhaustive Guide to Applying for College.

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