The 4% barrier has now been broken. Harvard received more than 57,000 applications this year, a 42% increase, resulting in a stunningly low 3.4% admit rate for the class of 2025. In fact, every Ivy League university saw at least a double digit increase in applications, with Columbia at the high end, up 51%, and Princeton taking up the rear with 15% growth.
Escalating application pools are nothing new. In 2017 I wrote a blog about the rising competitiveness of college admissions. At that time, 12 colleges, including all but one of the Ivies, admitted fewer than 10% of their applicants. Four years later, that number has doubled. The average high achieving student will encounter even more discouraging odds of getting into one of these colleges today. Plenty of academic rigor, superb grades, near perfect test scores and impressive extracurricular activities describe the typical applicant vying for a coveted spot at a top tier college. Facing sub-10% admission rates, most of these students will not be accepted. Compounding selectivity this year was the switch to test optional by most colleges and universities because of Covid-19. Without score requirements, many who were good students but not great test takers saw their opening. Hence, the dramatic rise in applications and fall in admit rates. Many colleges have decided to extend their test optional policies at least through the next admission cycle, signaling another highly competitive and unpredictable application season ahead.
With admit rates already so low, many who follow higher education news wonder how far they can continue to fall and whether it behooves elite universities to expand to make their universities accessible to more students. Op Ed articles in the New York Times (“Why Stanford Should Clone Itself,” by David L. Kirp) and the Washington Post (“Harvard and its Peers Should Be Embarrassed about How Few Students They Educate,” by Jeff Selingo) assert that the answer to the latter question is yes. Both authors argue that these well-endowed institutions are perpetuating elitism and limiting mobility for qualified underserved students by remaining so exclusive. While I agree that more has to be done to expand accessibility, I question why admission rates, rankings and the perceived seal of approval they imply still drive the conversation about how we assess the quality of an education.
Expecting elite universities to expand or clone themselves to accommodate the many bright students currently excluded from their hallowed halls is not realistic, nor should it be necessary. There are so many colleges and universities that deliver an academic experience of comparable quality, where professors hold the same degrees as Harvard faculty members, classes are small and engaging, and students have easy access to mentors and individual research opportunities. In his recently released book, The Price You Pay for College, New York Times journalist Ron Lieber cites The College of Wooster, a small liberal arts college in Ohio where every student works one-on-one with a faculty member on a multi-year mentored research project. Students produce an original work of scholarship and, in the process, acquire exceptional critical thinking, analytical, and writing skills.
Yet we still cling to the notion that ranking and name recognition are the arbiters of success. A recent Harvard Crimson survey of the school’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences revealed that “Over 40 percent of survey respondents believe the University’s standing within higher education has fallen during the past decade.” Even Harvard’s faculty question whether Harvard rightly deserves its unchallenged scholarly reputation and number one ranking. I’m not doubting that Harvard remains a value proposition, but I do wonder why we insist on believing that name and prestige determine outcomes.
The majority of bright and talented students will not attend Ivies and other colleges in the sub-10%, or even 20% admit range, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have valuable college experiences and go on to lead productive and fulfilling lives. When students focus on finding the right fit, they’ll likely connect with mentors who will ultimately impact their future more than the name embossed on the diploma. A 3.4% admit rate may bestow bragging rights, but it’s not the only or even a guaranteed path to success.